“Hey, Curly Fries!” (Of course, he didn’t say “Curly Fries,” he used her real name, which is easier to say.)
“How are you?”
“I got to ride horsies!”
“What’s on your cheek?”
(Pulling a sticker off his cheek:) “It’s a butterfly!”
“Ooh! A butterfly!”
(They both giggle at each other.)
Curly Fries has been verbalizing since she was a few months old; she’s been forming words since she was ten or eleven months. She talks a lot, and says all kinds of crazy things to us, her parents. It’s not the first time I’ve heard her talk to other people, of course; she can jabber on to everyone she meets. I’ve often heard her talk to A, usually telling him what to do when they’re playing together. (“A, c’mere! A, let’s swing! A, you wanna play games?”) But I think last night was the first time I’d ever heard her have an honest-to-goodness back-and-forth conversation with one of her peers.
As is true with so many things, the art of conversation becomes an amazing, dynamic, beautiful phenomenon when viewed through the eyes of a child. Adults converse all the time with one another; we take it for granted. It’s the tool we use to engage the world at nearly every turn: buying groceries or stamps, ordering take-out, inquiring about the details of a coworker’s weekend. A lot of these conversations are halfhearted at best, routines that we perform out of duty and expectation or simply for the purpose of getting whatever it is we need in that moment. Imagine the most recent conversation you had. Was the content of that conversation as mundane as the content of the conversation I recounted above? Or did you talk about something more important than butterfly stickers and horsie rides?
Probably you did, even if it was just to confirm an appointment or make some other kind of arrangement at your job. But I guarantee you that you did not carry on that conversation with the kind of enthusiasm that I heard last night between A and Curly Fries. To watch them talk to one another was to witness firsthand the experience of two young lives gloriously enjoying the process of verbal communication.
I was a communications major for a brief period of time in college. I learned only two things during my communications studies, and one of them was that the process of communication is a two-way process. (The other thing I learned is that money is made by selling to the lowest common denominator. That’s why I switched majors.) Communication does not simply consist of one person relaying a message; it does not qualify as communication until the intended recipient receives and comprehends the message being relayed. When you take this seriously, it actually rules out a lot of what we normally think of as communication. Talking to an uninterested person who is reading a book is not communication. Using words that another person doesn’t understand is not communication.
This definition also rules in a lot of things we normally don’t think of as communication. Facial expressions, hand gestures, and other non-verbal actions can all communicate in ways that words don’t. Infants and toddlers get good at these forms of communication early, learning to smile and laugh and point and sign so that their message gets across to the adult caregivers in their lives.
Our culture operates in such a way as to value verbal communication as the most common form. Watching your toddler learn this art is an amazing and inspiring process. Perhaps Curly Fries might have been able to communicate to A that she rode a horsie over the weekend without using words. I can imagine ways of communicating her curiosity about the sticker on his cheek. But oh the power of words! They can use their mouths to create sounds that form words that signify ideas that convey a message! And the message is received and then a new, appropriate message is conveyed in response!
These children talk like it is a thrilling kind of magic. I’m not the sort of writer who overuses exclamation points – I can still hear professors harping on me to show and not tell – but I purposely overused them in recounting the conversation above. Toddlers talk to each other only in exclamation points. Language is far too exciting and powerful a tool to use with cool nonchalance. Watching these lovely children converse with each other was like watching them build new inventions on the fly and discovering that they all work perfectly.
I grew up in a southern culture of manners and reserve, where we were taught to choose our words carefully. The Bible is filled with proverbial teachings about the importance of keeping watch over the tongue so as not to speak out of turn. But I was reminded last night of how delicious words can taste in your mouth and how joyful it can be to just talk. And not just for the hell of it, but for the purpose of truly communicating with another person. What a gift we have in words.
Whatever your next conversation is about and whoever it is with, see if you can tap into a little of that toddler magic. Remember the sheer delight of having your words work for you, communicating yourself to and with another person. Even for the mundane or unpleasant tasks, enjoy your language and recapture some of that enthusiasm in being able to talk to someone. It really is magic.