Sunday, October 23, 2011

Growing (Vocabulary) Pains

Watching children grow is bittersweet, as any parent will tell you. It's so exciting to watch those first steps, to see that first tooth, to run beside them on their first bike. Yet there's sadness, too, at leaving earlier stages behind. Those little infants I held in my arms and recited poetry to turned into toddlers who couldn't wait to run away from me at the park. The fact that they always come running back again doesn't quite soothe the hurt of the initial running away. I know that they'll never be mine quite as much as they were before. And so it goes, day after day and stage after stage. Growing and changing and moving farther away from me.

Soon enough, she'll inform you that
she never asked to be born.
The physical development of children is one thing, but it's their cognitive development that'll really break your heart. Since I'm blogging about it, of course I'm thinking about words. Their words. A child's words.

Children discover the power of words alongside learning to roll over or hold a spoon. They learn their name is a special word that refers only to themselves. They learn that calling to Mama by name will summon her as effectively as crying. Words empower children to describe the world around them and to express the world within them.

Inevitably, though, children will wield words as weapons. Their efforts at word hurling can be humorous in the beginning. It's hard to take a tiny tyrant seriously when she screams that you're a stinkyhead.

Giggle as we might, however, children deep down know that words can be just as painful as a physical blow. A child will report an incident of name calling as quickly as they tell on another child for slapping. Parents must teach children to speak kindly, just as we teach them not to hit.

 All the while a child is learning how to express himself in words, he is also learning to respond to the words of others. Hearing that he is loved, or clever, or has done something well gives a child joy. Children crave those words of encouragement and affection. Such verbal affirmations help children feel safe and secure.

A mother's pipe dream

On the other hand, sadly, children feel pain when hurtful words are thrown at them. Holding my son in my arms while he wept over the terrible things a friend said to him is one of the most trying things I've gone through as a parent. Cuts and scrapes can be washed and bandaged. Illness can be treated with medicine. But once someone hurts your child with words, there's no magic mommy kiss to make it better. All you can do is try to ameliorate the damage. Eventually, they move past it--a little tougher, a little wiser, a little less innocent.

Such incidents have happened, and will happen, again. And again. The words a child hears subtly change who they are and who they become. Even after a child develops the coordination to stop tripping over her own feet most of the time, she will still cause and receive hurt with words. Childhood tantrums become adolescent breakup speeches become adult sharing bad news. We carry the tantrums and breakup speeches and gossip and name calling with us, too, forever hurting one another. Words are the childhood trauma none of us escape.


  1. You're so right. I remember the feelings of certain words said as a child, specifically those from my parents. I'm so careful of that with my children...

  2. I want to tell the lady in the painting that her sleeve looks a little pumpkiny, but I don't want to hurt her feelings.

    Words can also be empowering, and I'm sure you did a fine job of giving your boy a bit of his power back <3

  3. MBG, she probably would take it as a compliment.

  4. Words are powerful, and once released are free to damage forever. And we usually recall hurting words from those we love more than those from those we dislike.