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www.themomegg.com - December 2009

For the love of language.


By Tina Traster

I was at the shoe store the other day and a father said the most refreshing thing to his five-year-old son.

“You look like a pimp in those red shoes.”

The child didn’t say, “What’s a pimp, Daddy?” But even if he had, that would have been okay.

Why do parents lose half their vocabulary and their sense of humor when they have young children? Surely a five year old doesn’t get that pimp joke, but he does get that his father is funny and quirky.

It’s sad to listen to parents dumb down their talk. They refrain from saying something sassy because they’re afraid to damage a child. Dumbing down is a cheat. Give children a limited verbal experience and they will be less tuned in to the nuances and pleasure of language. It’s never too soon to begin using irony, metaphors, analogies, even if they’re a bit racy or off-color or involve a politically incorrect notion. I’m not talking about cussing or encouraging racial epithets. . I’m saying sanitizing language does children a disservice because it trains them to think and speak in a banal and uninteresting way.

In raising our child, we have kept regular and often irreverent conversation afloat. I could swear those impish grins indicate she knows when we’re being daring and adventurous with our thoughts. It means mom and dad have fun with language and concepts and words. We know it’s only a matter of time until she does too.

Sometimes I say, “do you want that milk or not?” She says “not.” Does she know how funny that is or why?

I see parents eat an entire meal with their children speaking “squeaky-speak.” As if there’s some benefit to talking to a child in a high-pitched child’s voice? Do you communicate with a dog by barking? Yes there are moments of endearment when one coos verbally – but as a matter of course?

And what about those parents who butcher words because they are emulating their own children: Pwease, little Johnny, Pwease give that to momma.”

I admit lapses. When Julia says “no night night,” I might reply, “yes night night.” No grammarian would award points for that but it’s often irresistible to mimic their sweet little sentences. However, I don’t think there’s any good argument to initiate child-speak with her. I figure the sooner she’s exposed to full, complete sentences, the sooner she will use them. That started happening when she was two and a half. Three words: Subject, verb and noun. Delightful.

Then there are made-up names for body parts parents use because they’re unable to utter biologically-correct names. Why is penis any more complicated then pencil?  What’s the upside of having to re-teach the name of the body part later on? If I were five and my mommy tried to edit my language because she’s ready to tell me that a pee-pee is really a vagina, I’d be in resistance. If fact, I’d probably spend more time pondering how the name of a thing changed than in absorbing the newly declared name for a pee-pee. Will that be true for many words, a youngster would ponder.  How would mommy explain to a five-year-old that she was previously embarrassed to use the proper word? This then opens the can of worms on sexuality – and how will that parent be ready to go there with a pre-pubescent.

It is sad to think about children exposed to violent or militant or dangerous language – though there’s no shortage of that. But I see many parents “protect” their children from spirited phrases or dark humor.

I often wonder if people like the prince of dark documentaries Michael Moore or the tart-tongued New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd became so gifted with language because of early verbal influence. Perhaps they had hilariously funny parents or grandparents who tuned their ear and taught them to spin a mighty yarn.

Isn’t language music? If you expose a child early to music, he’s likely to develop an appreciation. I say the same is true for kooky thoughts, turns of phrases, dark insights and scathing commentary.

I grew up in a no-holds-barred household in Brooklyn during the 60s. For better or worse, dialogue was not censored. At dinner, we talked politics, we talked sex, we talked about race relations. Participation was encouraged; arguing was inevitable. But censorship was never an option. My parents swung the doors wide open, and I haven’t stopped saying what I mean ever since.

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