Friday, April 26, 2013

Bossed in translation

Our newborn has hit a rough patch on the sleeping through the night front, in the sense that on Wednesday night he did very little consistent sleeping, at least very little consistent, peaceful, quiet sleeping. He squirms and grunts a lot (which he may be doing half-awake or in his sleep, who knows) and sometimes he’ll start and stop on his own and sometimes he escalates to crying and needs to be soothed, but either way since he sleeps right beside our bed he was basically disturbing my wife’s sleep hourly all night until she woke me up a little before 4 a.m. and the baby and I relocated to the den so she could get a full REM cycle or maybe two in relative silence. Which meant neither of us was at our best for Thursday, but between the two of us we just about added up to a responsible adult capable of caring for two or three kids, so I played hooky from work (hence no post yesterday) to stay home and help carry the load. (Standard disclaimer: nights are much harder on my wife than on me, and whenever I use the first person collective because there are some number of impacts on both of us, you should still assume more of those are falling on her.) Last night was better, but not great, and today there’s a pediatrician’s visit in store to see if this is something we just need to ride out or if there’s a deeper problem causing the apparent discomfort.

So that’s how that’s been going.

But I did want to report a bit on the baby’s big brother and big sister, and their semi-parallel advances in communication. The little guy of course has very little if any trouble expressing himself these days, with the possible exception of some of the more abstract, if not ineffable, details of his interior life. (When he is reluctant to do something he often claims he’s “shy” which I don’t think is exactly right, though neither he nor I can readily identify the nameless anxiety actually at work there.) He is so generally adept at explaining things to us, in fact, that he has now taken it upon himself to helpfully speak on his sister’s behalf, since she is still working with a much smaller vocabulary and looser grasp of syntax. And that is cute and sweet of him and sometimes profoundly aggravating. My son, his mother and I have all lived with the little girl for exactly the same amount of time, and I’d say we all know her pretty well. And she may not have perfect pronunciation or even words for every idea just yet, but between gestures and tone and a smattering of recognizable English, she rarely has serious trouble making her needs and wants known. What ends up happening, again and again and again, at least once a day, is some variant on this:

- I’ll be trying to get the little girl to eat her vegetables at dinner.
- She will turn away from the single green bean on the fork I’m holding out to her, make a “blech” noise, and say “No muh!”
- I will ignore her and keep trying to cajole her into trying a bite.
- Her brother will very loudly announce, “She doesn’t want it! She’s saying ‘no more’!”

And it’s like, dude, I KNOW. What she’s saying is beside the point of whatever I’m trying to accomplish; I understand what she’s saying but am choosing not to respond to it. And I know the little guy is only try to help, and he doesn’t grasp all the nuances of the situation, but I still have this instinctual hackles-raising reaction to someone, anyone (kith and kin included) who presumes even to imply that they understand my child better than I do myself. The logic, in my son’s mind, runs “You should give my sister whatever she wants; you’re not currently giving her what she wants; ergo, you must not understand what she’s telling you she wants; but I have a very special bond with her and I speak her language; therefore, I must tell you exactly what she wants to clear up this whole misunderstanding.” And obviously that logic is flawed right at the outset, but it feels rock-solid to him. Again: adorable, touching, and frequently annoying as hell.

Make no mistake, though: the little girl is trying mightily to acquire all the language skills she needs to fit into our household (which, lest we forget, is well in excess of what a normal sane person needs to get by in the world). She has gotten very good at stringing together nonsense syllables into a cadence that sounds, rhythmically at least, a lot like adult speech. And she will occasionally throw a real word or two into the baba-baba flow, so you do kind of have to pay attention to get the gist. I don’t mind paying attention, not just because she’s my daughter and I love her but because I love that stage of learning to talk, I find it fascinating and hilarious. Although this time around I found it a little bit humbling, too.

A few nights ago the little girl was in particularly high spirits right before bedtime, when it was just me and her hanging out in her room. And she started “talking” to me a mile a minute, punctuating every other sentence with a clear and unmistakable “OK?” At the time, I was simply amused and since I determined that she was going over the things we were going to do before she went to bed, like which books we were going to read and how we were going to arrange ourselves (sometimes she likes to sit on my lap but sometimes she likes to stand in front of me with the book turned around for her, &c.) I more or less followed her as she went on and on and on. But later, when I had time to reflect on it, something occurred to me: she wasn’t just mimicking grown-up conversation, she was mimicking the way her mother and I talk to her older brother. Because the little guy is very smart for a four year old but has a four year old’s attention span at best. And his mother and I pride ourselves on also being smart, to the point where we secretly believe that we could solve just about any problem in the known universe if people would just listen to us. So we are always working from a sincere faith in our own ability to get the little guy on our side. If we have to correct his behavior, we know in our hearts that we don’t have to settle for punishing him in hopes that it will deter him in the future, but rather we can make him understand why we expect him to follow certain rules. But, again, we know he is smart enough to come up with some counterarguments of his own, which theoretically we should eb able to dismantle, and we also know he is going to get bored of the conversation quickly so we have a very small window of opportunity to impress things on him. Therefore, we say a lot and we say it fast, making our point, pre-emptively shooting down his objections, and spitting it all out before he drifts away on us.

In other words, we tend to rattle off tirades like this: “You are never, ever allowed to wrap something around someone’s neck! It can really hurt them very badly! OK? Don’t do it, not even a little, not even as part of a game! OK? I don’t care if you are playing cowboy round-up or anything, I don’t care if you’re being gentle, just don’t do it! Not allowed! OK?” All in about fifteen seconds, or however long it finally takes the little guy to acknowledge the message is being received and say “O.K.” So of course, the little girl has heard examples of that a-plenty, and she can imitate them perfectly as “Jibba jabba jibba jibba OK? Jibba jibba jabba jabba jibba jabba OK? Jabba jibba jabba OK?

It does give one pause, which hopefully is time enough to consider maybe slowing down a bit and not expecting to constantly dazzle my own pre-school offspring with rhetorical brilliance every time a teachable moment comes along (i.e. all the damn time).

P.S. Report back from the pediatrician: normal newborn stuff, carry on. The words “glycerin suppository” were bandied about. So there’s that.

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