Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Baby's First

Baby's first rhetorical question, with hands on hips and brow deeply furrowed: "Do I look happy, Mom? No. I don't. I am very angry with you."

The context was perfect--she was trying to get my attention, and I was resolutely emptying the dishwasher despite her entreaties to play Dora. The tone was perfect--a kind of self-aware broadcast declarative designed to 'hook' the audience.

Is there a page for that in the commemorative album? Is there a tickbox for that on the developmental charts? What kinds of figures of speech ought children acquire competence in, and at what age?

Rhetorical questions. Huh.

I'm always shocked at the sophistication of Munchkin's language, her capacity with metaphor and analogy ("I eat blueberries for my blue eyes, and you can eat apples and have red eyes!), her use of book-style narration, with adverbs ("And the pony said, happily, 'I will help you, Boots!'), and her ability to use language to express strong feelings ("I don't want to cry softly, Mom, I want to cry loudly, because I am very frustrated and not happy! I want to be sad for a little while.")

A lot of her fancy talk comes from books--"my belly is the colour of a sunset!" she tells me, quoting Pinkalicious, or "I was so mad, I was FURIOUS," she cribs from Fancy Nancy. Some of her most-used play speech comes from Dora, or Diego, or the Wonder Pets: "There's an animal in trouble, Mom! Come on! Vamanos!" she implores, as we crawl under the dining room table with a paper clip in hand, to save a plastic dinosaur stuck on a Cheerio.

I kind of like these echoes we hear from her, because it makes me feel we've done the right thing being careful about the media she's exposed to. Her books push her to more syntactically challenging sentence forms, a richer vocabulary in a thematic context appropriate to three year olds--fantastical worlds, maybe, but ones where whimsy and kindess set the tone. Her TV shows are semantically benign: cooperation, sharing, problem solving, talking trains and singing animal that offer her scripts that she needs in order to get along in the world. It is amazing how she soaks it all up, how these texts structure her interactions when the book is shut and the TV is turned off.

By contrast, I see a lot of little kids quoting chapter and verse from Tropic Thunder or Anchorman or The Simpsons, parroting sarcasms they do not understand, and engaging in backtalk, defiance, and many other kinds of verbal and behavioural rudeness. And why not? That's what they see. It really, really bothers me.

Of course, Munchkin picks up a lot of her cues about the world--and her language--from me and Pynchon too. Her first rhetorical question, I blush to own, is one she has heard many times from me. She is a tiny mirror reflecting back our conduct to us, as much as she parrots the television and books she's exposed to. At least once this has come out, in perfect context, as "JESUS FUCKING CHRIST ALREADY!" (part of our family frustration routine) but more often we hear, "Let's get your doudou, Baby Bear, and Mama Bear will tuck you in nice and cosy for your snug!" (part of our family good-night routine).

Isn't it funny, how when our kids use their burgeoning language skills, they express us almost as much as they express themselves?


Cloud said...

I love this post.

You should definitely add a page to the baby book for "First Rhetorical Question"!

I also think you're right about thinking about how TV/movies will be parroted back, and how it is more than parroting really- it is how kids learn how to interact in the world. I know that my Pumpkin is doomed to a certain amount of sarcasm, thanks to her Daddy's example. But I don't want her learning the mean stuff, and I certainly don't want her learning it from the shows we let her watch! Which means she's stuck with PBS Kids for the time being.... Although I am thinking of adding Dora when the new baby is born. For the Spanish, you know. Certainly not for the novelty and distraction....

Mimi said...

Ha! What's funny about Dora is that Munchkin is actually learning French as her second language, officially, but she is mangling up the French and the Spanish into a not-English hybrid of her own.

Dora's a good kid, but her default setting is 'shriek'. That character simply does not have an 'inside voice.'

Denguy said...

Oh, how true it is.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

One of my husband's long-time friends has just moved back to town and lord, that man swears like no tomorrow. I've spent the last 7 years purging my speech of swears; my now-delicate ears find him shocking.

Anyway, so far I haven't heard any of his three kids swear. They seem to understand that certain kinds of speech are Daddy's alone. It's very interesting.

Omaha Mama said...

J always says I'm geeking up our kids, they are so bright and cheerful, like a nice cheery board book. Then we left church the other day and B told one of the workers (thankfully a college girl), "So long suckas!" in perfect rhythm. Ouch. Thanks, Disney Channel. :0)

We mark our kids' development by certain language milestones as well. It does feel good to know that something you've done is proving to be right! I was so excited and then felt silly that B got the longer spelling list this week when she did well on the pretest. As educators, we just can't help ourselves!

Jenifer said...

I love this! Many things have come out of the mouths of babes here too. They often involve the word "crap" I must say.

I think language is one of the markers that reflect an awful lot about how you parent and the personality of the child. It really is a kind of barometer of not only where they are, but where they are heading.

I love many of the Disney shows, but have had to limit some of them because the kids are so sassy and they make all the adults bumbling fools. I have asked Papoosie Girl if she understands why I don't like them and to my amazement she does. She gets that they are acting that way for her entertainment which is a bit startling in itself.

The media infiltrates in so many ways that keeping control at home is something we think is really important.

Bea said...

Two of Bub's most common expressions lately, cribbed from Bakugan and Dinosaur King, are "Could you just zip it?" and "Hey, old lady!" He doesn't really use either expression correctly, and both are basically offensive. We've graduated from the benign world of Treehouse, and the content of these shows is basically age-appropriate and socially useful to him - but why do we have to make shows for 5-8 year-olds that are basically training manuals for mouthiness?

Mimi said...

And that, Bea, is the $64,000 question: why? Why do adults create training manuals for mouthiness? Who decided this was a good idea?

Kyla said...

I love this post, Mimi!

I agree with Bea. My kids have outgrown the benign preschool shows, mostly, and the next level seem to be a lot of crap. We do like Phinneas and Ferb, though. Funny, but basically kid-appropriate. I wonder why we as a society have decided that educational programming is only important for preschoolers? Why aren't there as many educational and entertaining school-aged shows? Outside of PBS, it is kind of slim pickings.

Mimi said...

Yeah, Kyla! Shows don't have to be treacly or too-earnest. I mean, there's a lot of really great, fun, age-appropriate BOOKS for school-age kids. But most of the TV is sass-mouth crap. Is it because it's largely written by 22 year old men?

Beck said...

We like Phinneas and Ferb, too. And iCarly makes me and my husband laugh, even though it can be... sassy. My 10 year old has seriously outgrown baby shows and so now we're challenged to find things that are appropriate for all 3. GOOD LUCK, ME!

My kids shriek "HOLA! MY NAME IS DORA!" at top volume. ALL THE TIME. Brats.

b*babbler said...

It's true - as annoying as Dora's shriek is, the actual content of the show is innocuous, as is most of that on Treehouse. (Excepting, perhaps, Fifi and the Flowertots, which teaches a treacly "girly-ness" that I find offensive to the core.)

I haven't seen much of the older kids shows, but based on my limited exposure, I'm already quaking in my boots.

So far, we've been really lucky with the imitation around here, although Peanut did tell me in the car to "calm down mummy, caaaaaalm down. Don't get angry mummy. Settle down, mummy. Shhhh shhhh shhhhhhh." Ahem.

the new girl said...

Amen to all of this. You know that our girls seem to still seem to have similarities--outside the screaming/no sleeping babyhood. Mine, too, surprises me DAILY with her language/communication skills and her memory/ability to recall.

You'd think that she watches hundreds of hours of TV the way she recalls entire scenes.