On preschooler language

Parents are really into telling their little kid, “Use your words!”

Especially when he’s about to smack down another toddler.

But why are they his words? Are we sure we want him to do that? His words are things around him, like Mama, Daddy, cat, spoon, fork, pasta, poop and cup.

He’s not exactly equipped with the makings of an elegant soliloquy, in his own words, armed with verse and ready to charm dastardly, villainous thieving preschoolers onto his side with a mixture of verbal dexterity and gentle restraint.

Nope. He’ll probably just yell no in the other kid’s face, because those are in fact his words. That’s what he’d like to say. (As well as some expletives, if his f%*&ing uptight parents would act less like benevolent, understanding robots for a moment and accidentally teach him some, along with some real emotion. “You seem frustrated,” the monotone adult voice says now, as it has been instructed to do by the parenting book gods.)

What we really want to do is ask him to use “our words,” but in a way where we feel comfortable that we are not in fact feeding him the whole script, when of course we are. And standing nearby like the authorities lest one of the kids breaks a three-strikes rule and needs to be hauled off to a time-out chair.

Maybe I’m just an antagonistic ex-copy editor, but it does strike me as strange that so many of us use the timeworn “Gentle, gentle!” order, too. It’s just an adjective, hanging out there, all awkward and alone and gawky.

Don’t we need a verb in this case, rather desperately? For instance, imagine a wayward child (not mine!) is actively assaulting yours, and I say ,“Gentle!” Does that mean to stop punching the other kid in the head?

No, it just means, “We use gentle punches here”: Please punch his head gently. 

See, adding a verb to the formula would come in handy now and again:  Please touch his head gently.

Please kiss his head gently.

Who ever said grammar nerds couldn’t bust up fights?—Jillian O’Connor

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