I witnessed this with my own eyes and ears this morning at breakfast. The vocabulary explosion I predicted a few months ago has arrived (albeit a little later than I first supposed). She is speaking in complete sentences and they are appropriate to the context of whatever is going on in her world. “I want to watch Elmo,” she says to me, plopping down on the sofa in front of the TV. (Netflix streams Sesame Street, for those of you who might be interested.) “I have a boo-boo,” she said as she pointed to the scrape on her knee. Then the day after I had a lump cut off of my back, when I walked into the kitchen after a shower with my shirt off, she pointed and said, “Daddy has a boo-boo on his back.”
So okay, her enunciation still needs lots of work. “I want to watch Elmo” sounds like “I wuh watch Elmo.” “Daddy has a boo-boo on his back” was more like “Daddy boo-boo on back.” So fine, my daughter’s not an oratorical genius at the age of two. But whatever; I’m still impressed. Like all parents, I’m overwhelmed when my child displays her intelligence and growth. And since she’s the only child I’m around on a regular basis, I’m predisposed to believe she’s the smartest child ever.
For decades, I have been making fun of parents who think their children are the best at everything. I’ve copped to this before. But now that I’ve kind of become one of those parents, I do have a more full understanding of how and why parents get like this. You see, I remember when my little girl couldn’t talk. It wasn’t terribly long ago. And then – almost overnight, it sometimes seems – she is talking. It’s the same with, well, everything she does. I don’t have to think that far back to remember a time when she could only eat, cry, and poop. Now she put her own shoes on. And feed herself. And name her colors and animals. And talk in complete sentences. She’s learned to do more in the past two years than I have learned in the past twenty – and I have two degrees and several professional certifications. Granted, my daughter can’t give you a historical exegesis of developmental theory. But which do you think is more important: Freud, or feeding yourself? Yeah, I think my daughter’s recent learning is a little more useful than my recent learning.
People expect me to speak in (mostly) complete sentences. But when a toddler does it, it’s mind-blowing. No one thinks I’m smart when I say, “I want to watch Elmo.” But to hear a two-year-old express herself this clearly and directly is another thing. Language, particularly the English language, is a complex, difficult, nuanced system of understanding and processing. And she’s doing it at two! And she’s the only two-year-old I see do it on such a regular basis. Her buddies at daycare can do this too, I know. But I haven’t watched them develop the skills.
Here’s a story that illustrates the whole reason parents think their children rule the universe (other than the obvious reason that a child does, in most ways, rule her parents’ universe). The other night I was feeding my daughter dinner. She was eating a few crackers, her “dessert” that she gets when she’s eaten the other foods on her plate. I was having a snack as well, scooping out hummus onto wheat wafers. She pointed to the bowl of hummus and said, “I want some.” Nothing terribly unusual here; she often wants whatever we have, even if she already has it. So I took one of her crackers and scooped it in the bowl, a dollop of hummus on its edge, and I handed it back to her. With her other hand, she pointed at the hummus on the cracker and said, “Name?”
It took me a moment to realize what she’d asked me.
“It’s called ‘hummus,’” I said.
“Hummus,” she repeated, and then took a bite.
That right there is the learning process in action. Not only did she encounter a new thing and speak its name out loud, she did this intentionally, seeking to know the name of the experience even before she experienced it. I didn’t just watch her learn; I watched her want to learn. I’m sure it won’t be too many years before we hit the “why” stage of childhood. As comically obnoxious as this is to most parents, it is a child’s way of seeking to understand her world, of wanting to learn and comprehend.
Why is that so amazing? Well, when is the last time that you truly wanted to learn something new? When is the last time you deliberately and intentionally sought out an experience you’ve never had before? I must confess that I’m not nearly as curious about the world as my daughter is. We parents have the incredible blessing of watching the learning process at ground zero: this is how development takes place at its most basic, fundamental level, and it is powerfully humbling and exciting to be reminded of the life-changing power of curiosity. When I keep saying about my daughter, “She’s so smart!” what I really mean is, “She’s so curious and she’s doing something about it!”
When she shows me what she’s done with her curiosity, it blows my mind. I already knew I was wearing a purple shirt before I went in for breakfast this morning. But when she said, “Daddy has a purple shirt,” I saw myself differently.