The Mysterious Language of Children

Serena and Trevor, circa 1996

by Noreen Seebacher

Serena doesn’t want to go on vacation.

At three, she’s afraid the state we proposed to visit has too many “tomatoes.” Not the kind you eat — the kind that knock down trees and houses. Most people call them “tornadoes.”

It’s a fine, but important distinction, one every parent learns as soon as her child starts to talk.

What kids say and what they mean are often two very different things.

Shana, now 9, always begged to eat in the “Diamond Room” and see the “Raw Cats” at Radio City Music Hall.

Ali, 14, needed help with the “buddons” on her coat and the “bunchkins” in her socks.

Arielle, 7, still wants to visit the “Entire State” building.

Our job as parents is to come up with a workable, if unique, vocabulary. Call it kid-speak or simply family language. Whatever the name, it’s generally as foreign outside the home as any distant tongue.

Other kids look surprised when I ask my daughters for gummies and pretties. But my kids know as surely as other children know the alphabet that what I really want is a rubber band and a barrette for their hair.

They’re our words — and they make sense to us. What makes me wonder is how we can develop such a distinctive language and still fail to understand each other.

We know the words. It’s the feelings that make communication so difficult.

My kids ask for candy when what they really want is a hug.

They’ll cry because they don’t like the clothes I chose for them to wear — when what they’re really asking is a chance to help make the choice of outfits.

They pretend to have difficulty with their homework just to get a little extra attention.

Words are easy. Understanding the meaning behind them is the hard part.

We try. We hear things on whatever level we’ve been trained from childhood, trying our best to make sense of it all. My husband picks up the nuances far better than I can, and wonders why what seems so obvious to him escapes my notice.

I concentrate on the concrete expressions, giving my kids exactly what I heard them request — and wonder why they’re still unhappy.

I wish they had a course on Understanding Feelings 101.

But they don’t. It’s a skill we acquire, if we’re blessed, through love, compassion and trial-and-error. Lots of trial and error: It takes a lot of mistakes to learn to communicate with those you love.

I’m not always good at it. I listen too closely to the words, marveling at my ability to define the “Raw Cats” while remaining clueless to the feelings behind them.

We grow from good parents to great ones when we learn to do both.

Trevor, 6, is sitting on my lap. “I don’t know these words,” he says in frustration.

We look at the book. I think of having him sound out each word, putting together the sentences and mastering the book. He’s having a hard time with reading, and I long to push him hard to succeed.

Then it hits me. He doesn’t want a reading lesson. He needs some understanding and confidence.

So I run my fingers through his thick, wavy hair.

“You’re my smartest little boy,” I tell him sincerely. “I’m so proud of you.”

He relaxes in my arms, smiling.

“This word,” he says, pointing at the page. “I know it! I think I know them all!”

He probably does, I think to myself — and maybe, someday, he can teach them to me.