When my first child was born, I made some ambitious resolutions in terms of how I would behave as a parent. One of the promises I made to myself was that I would never be the kind of parent that just said “Because I said so!” when my kid asked difficult questions.
Allow me a moment to say: Bwahahahahaahaha!
I feel like a lot of new parents make that promise, but the problem isn’t what you think it is. You think the problem is going to be that your child’s endless intellectual curiosity will overwhelm your patience and in frustration you’ll be a tyrant. So you decide in advance that you’ll always discuss things rationally with your child, welcome open inquiry, and encourage their love of learning.
But that’s not the problem at all! The problem is that these little weirdos are absolutely insane and the things they ask make no freakin’ sense.
Things my kid has asked me:
- “Where is the place that doesn’t have chicken nuggets?” Uhhh… what?
- “Can I have some?” Pointing at absolutely nothing, nor was I holding/eating anything. When I asked “Some… what?” she had no answer.
- My favorite: “What does something else look like?”
What does something else look like?
I was not prepared to answer questions of this level of existential severity.
But it’s all part of the process. Kids get language in such weird and interesting ways. They’re just collecting little bits and pieces and assembling them in different ways until it works. They don’t know the rules, so they’re just trying to get across their point. Interestingly, I discovered what each of the above nonsense questions actually meant with a little detective work:
- When asking about the place that doesn’t have chicken nuggets: I realized that whenever we went out to eat as a family, we only went to one of two kid-friendly restaurants. One was Chik-fil-A, and the other was a local pizza place. She couldn’t remember the words for “pizza” or anything like that, so the best way she could describe what she wanted was “the place that doesn’t have chicken nuggets.”
- Because we were always introducing her to new foods, whenever we ate anything, we’d always offer her a bite and say “Do you want some?” We said the word “some” approximately a billion times more often than we said the word “food,” so she thought the word for “things you eat” was Some. She was just hungry.
- She had overheard me describing a family friend, a bit of a zany character, and I’d described him thus: “He’s something else, all right.” I hadn’t even realized my daughter heard me, or that she would so heavily imprint the term.
So while they’re absolute maniacs, there is a method to their madness. They’re collecting bits of pieces of the world around them, mashing them together until they fit. They get better at it.
What I love about this is it’s almost totally free-form. Kids pick up their native language with no formal instruction. They make a TON of mistakes, but so what? They make it work. They learn everything that way – one of my favorite parenting moments was watching this time my daughter was playing with a cup under the bathtub faucet. She was filling the cup, turning it upside-down, and filling it again. The look on her face would make you think she was watching the moon landing. She was learning all these facts about physics and gravity and how her environment worked for the first time and I could just see the gears turning in her head, and it was wonderful.
Don’t lose that now that you’re an adult. That is still absolutely, 100% the best way to learn things. Just jump in and pick up pieces and gradually mash them together with other pieces you pick up. View each individual piece as a happy success. Don’t worry about the end goal as much – kids don’t know what full command of the language looks like as they’re learning it.
We’ve been conditioned to feel this formalized, credential-based way of learning is the only way to get good at something, to pick up anything new, and it ends up being a huge barrier to us. We think we can’t learn anything new because we don’t have time to take a course or money to pursue a degree. But that’s such a terrible way of looking at the wonderful chaos of facts and knowledge. The better way is immersion, jumping in and using the mistakes to make better ones until you’re making what you want instead.
That’s what something else looks like.