But all of that is challenged now that my toddler is speaking in sentences.
Obviously, my little girl has not had the practice that I have in conversing. She’s only two, and she’s been speaking English for a minority of those two years. So clearly, I should cut her some slack, right? She can’t possibly be as gifted as I am in conversation. But she’s only been walking upright for a year now and she can already outrun me. I know she’ll learn the ways of the world in time, but I believe that the frustrating labyrinthine experience of a conversation with my daughter is not dependent solely on her not having learned the nuances of adult conversation. For her, conversations follow no rules. Toddlers are dialogical anarchists.
One of the underlying assumptions about all conversations is that their purpose is to communicate something from one person to another. A basic rule of Mass Communications 101 (seriously, I learned this in Mass. Comm. 101 at UT as a college freshman) is that it only counts as communication if the intended message sent by one party matches the message received by the other party. If I tell you a story about how bad my day was with the purpose making you feel sorry for me and your response is to laugh and tell me you’ll give me something to cry about, then communication has failed. Poor conversationalists are people who are either bad at making themselves understood, or bad at understanding others. But even so, there is the assumption that communication is taking place, however well or poorly this actually happens.
Not so with a toddler. She often doesn’t care if she’s communicating or not. No message is being conveyed, no meaning is being signified. It is sound and fury for the sheer sake and delight of it. And example:
Curly Fries 1: Daddy!
Me 1: Yes?
CF2: Daddy! Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!
M2: Yes, baby?
CF3: Kitty go night-night.
M3: It’s time for kitty to go night-night, huh?
CF4: Um, I color Daddy.
M4: You want to color with Daddy? Or by yourself?
CF5: Bye-bye, Daddy.
As you can see, it would appear that communication is taking place in CF3. My thinking is that she is trying to communicate to me that it is kitty’s bedtime. And so I, the artful conversationalist, practice what is called “reflective listening” in M3 by reflecting back to her what I believe she is communicating to me in order to confirm whether accurate communication has occurred. In CF4, however, this is neither confirmed nor denied, and a completely new concept is introduced. Again, I attempt to parse the meaning of CF4 by offering her two possible interpretations in M4. But then the conversation comes to an abrupt end in CF5, when Curly Fries bids me a happy farewell. I have made it clear that I am seeking clarification from her, but she cares not. Communication is not important; it is the making of sounds that signify to her whatever is going on in her head. I am merely a silent witness. I might as well try to convince Carly Simon that I have her interests in mind by talking back to a radio playing “You’re So Vain.”
Another basic assumption among adult conversation is that the other party is listening to you. By “listening” I don’t mean actually hearing; we all know adults who don’t hear what we say, and seem to only be listening to the words we speak in order to know how to refute or deflect them. We’re in an election year, so there are plenty examples of people refusing to hear one another in conversation. But there is still the assumption that each party is at least paying attention to the sounds that come out of other people’s mouth in order to know what they want to say next.
This doesn’t work with a toddler. Not only does she not hear me, she often doesn’t listen. And I don’t mean this in the typical “children don’t listen” kind of way; for a toddler, it’s as if you are not even speaking. It’s not that she ignores or disregards what I say; she doesn’t even experience the sound waves traveling from my mouth to her ears. An illustration:
CF1: I want go outside.
M1: You want to go outside?
M2: Okay, we can go outside. Let me put on your shoes.
CF3: (screaming) I want go outside!
M3: We’re going outside, just as soon as –
CF4: (at fire alarm volume) GO OUTSIDE!
M4: Yes, we are, just as –
CF5: (wailing and crying) Go outside! Go outside!
M5: (with shoes in hand) Okay, we’re goingoutside. Let’s put on shoes.
CF6: (kicking shoes out of my hand with her feet) No, Daddy! Outside!
This scenario ended with me forcing her shoes on and dragging her outside, at which point she quit screaming and ran away from me as if nothing had happened. I suppose communication is occurring to some degree in this situation – she communicates her desire to go outside, and her desire is fulfilled. In M1 I repeat her request and she confirms in CF2 that I have understood her. But even though I immediately confirm her desire to go outside in M2, she does not hear or understand. M3, M4 and M5 are all ignored in service of what she considers to be louder, more emphatic communication through increased volume, wailing and crying, and kicking. Her message is loudly reinforced and repeated despite my having heard and understood it; my message is ignored.
Of course, the above scenario is not at all uncommon for children of many ages. As I noticed before, even as children grow in their capacity to actually register the sounds of words from their parents mouths, they will continue to ignore or disregard these words. But there is another odd, quirky, and at times charming function of a toddler’s conversations: meaning is fluid. The sounds of the words I speak might be registering in her eardrums, but the meanings that they signify seem to shift effortlessly from one thing to the next. A hilarious example:
M1: Did you have a good day at school today.
M2: What all did you do?
CF2: I boo-boo.
M3: You got a boo-boo?
M4: Where is your boo-boo?
CF4: My leg. (points to leg, upon which there is no visible sign of injury.)
M5: What happened to your leg?
M6: Mike hurt your leg?
M7: How did he hurt your leg?
CF7: Mike boo-boo on leg.
M8: Do you mean Mike got a boo-boo?
M9: Did you give Mike a boo-boo on his leg?
M10: Uh oh. What did you do? Did you kick him?
M11: Did you bite him?
M12: Did you shoot him in the leg with a shotgun?
Either her friend Mike had a really rough day at school and should stop being friends with my daughter, or the meaning of my words has no significance to her. She does, however, indicate that she understands that I am asking her questions that expect a response. But you’ll notice that my understanding of who has received the boo-boo is in question. In CF3, she affirms that it was she who received the boo-boo, and in CF4 actually says it was her leg. But when asked what happened to her leg, she answers, “Mike.” She confirms my reflective listening in M6, affirming that Mike hurt her leg. But then in CF7, she seems to change her story. When I follow up in M8, she affirms that it was actually Mike who has the boo-boo. She answers every one of my questions, even if they ultimately make no sense.
Occasionally, however, a conversation will take place in which it seems we are all communicating. Questions are answered appropriately and make sense; and she even volunteers further information instead of simply answering “yes.” An example from just this week:
M1: Did you have a good day today?
CF1: Yes. I play.
M2: Fun! Who did you play with?
M3: You played with Lisa, huh? Did you play with anyone else?
M4: You played with Mike too.
CF4: Yeah. Mike, he mad. Mad!
M5: Mike got mad today?
M6: What did Mike get mad about?
CF6: Mike want go home. But Mike no go home.
M7: Mike got mad because he wanted to go home but couldn’t go home.
M8: I see. Do you ever get mad?
CF8: (pause) Yeah.
M9: Yeah. You get mad when you want to go outside but can’t.
CF9: I like outside.
M10: Yeah, playing outside is fun.
CF10: Yeah, outside fun.
This was a good conversation. I learned that my sweet little daughter played with two of her friends, one of whom got mad because he wanted to go home, and that my little girl has fun playing outside. As you can see, in several places my daughter volunteers information. In CF1, she answers my question and adds that she played. In CF4 she confirms that she played with Mike and then goes on to tell me that Mike got mad. She answers my questions with concrete data by naming the names of her friends in CF2 and CF3, and then in CF6 gives me a description of what made Mike mad. And in CF9 and CF10 she not only gives affirmations of my statements, but repeats them in her own words. And when I make a significant shift in the conversation in M8, moving from Mike’s mad fit to asking her if she ever gets mad, she moves along with the shift without getting stuck on previous topics or shifting the conversation away. By and large, this was the best conversation I’ve ever had with my daughter.
But I had no idea which way it would go. That’s what made it so great: there is a constant sense of daring and spontaneity. The usual rules of the game no longer apply and I can’t rely on my usual tricks. Dialogical anarchist that she is, she has complete sway over me. I come away from this conversation with her feeling as if I have achieved some incredible feat, performing an acrobatic stunt requiring astounding precision and luck which dwarfs all other conversations I have had during the day – intricate, intimate conversations with adults about their theological beliefs and emotional experiences. But those artful conversations are a cakewalk compared to my conversations with this little girl. Fine conversationalist that I am, she gets the best of me every time.
Talking to her may honestly be the most fun I’ve ever had.