Words to kids often get lost in translation

lpemberton@theolympian.comNovember 25, 2012 

Good communication can be one of the biggest challenges in parenting.

For instance, a few weeks ago, our 7-year-old son was listening to some music with a set of headphones in the car, when he announced, “Wow, I really like this music. It has a lot of violence.”

“Violence?” I said. “What in the world are you listening to?”

I figured he had found some type of rap or hard rock station on the radio. I hoped he hadn’t discovered my secret Eminem album or the mixed CD with the words “Rated M for Mama” that my friend wrote on the label.

And I didn’t even want to think about our Red Hot Chili Peppers collection. Didn’t we hide those in the office somewhere so the kids would never, ever find them?

“Oh, I don’t know, but it sure is pretty,” my son said. “This station plays a lot of piano music, too.”

And that’s when I realized he was trying to say the word “violins,” not “violence.”

Sometimes, miscommunication occurs when a child takes something a parent says too literally, or both parties assume they know what each other is talking about, and they don’t. Other times, though, I think the words parents say leave our mouths and physically change before they enter kids’ ears. It’s some type of complicated mathematical/scientific/logic thing, like quantum physics, how my car’s gas gauge drops below the empty line so quickly, and some of the problems in my daughter’s algebra homework.

Through trial and error, though, I think I’m beginning to understand what my kids are hearing. I still haven’t figured out how to speak in their code, but I can rest better knowing that it’s a language issue, not an “I’m not listening to you” parenting issue.

Here are some recent conversations that took place in our house, with what I assume are the kid’s translations:

Parent says: Hurry up and get dressed for school.

The 5-year-old hears: Even though it’s cold and rainy outside, please look through every drawer until you can find a pair of swim trunks to wear to school. They’ll look great with your new pair of snow boots and that toddler-size flannel pajama shirt that you found under your bed.

The 7-year-old hears: This is the perfect time to find something that’s stained, wrinkled and laying on the floor. Bonus points if you wore it yesterday. None of those clean clothes that are folded in the laundry basket or put away in your dresser could possibly fit anyway.

The 12-year-old hears: Please, take as much time as you need to find the perfect outfit and fix your hair. Or wear the same thing you wore yesterday. It doesn’t matter because I’m a grownup and I don’t understand things like teen fashion, age-appropriate clothing and the school’s dress code. But first, before you do anything, I really want you go sync your iPod.

Parent says: Please be quiet, I’m on the phone. It’s work-related and important.

The 5- and 7-year-old hear: I think you should see what happens when you spill 1,500 Lego blocks on the kitchen floor. Will it be a loud crash? Let’s see if they scatter everywhere so that I can step on them days from now. And, if you get really bored, you should start fighting over each other’s toys, scream, cry and pound on my office door. I will know that means that you love me.

The 12-year-old hears: Blah, blah, blah, I’m working. If you hear your brothers screaming, just drown it out with your iPod.

Parent says: OK, everybody smile for the picture.

The 5-year-old hears: Flash a fake grimace. Wait, I can’t quite see every tooth in your mouth.

The 7-year-old hears: This is a great time to scowl or make a funny face, just like you did at Disneyland. And what kind of memory of a family adventure would we have without bunny ears over your sister’s head?

The 12-year-old hears: Pretend that you like us for a minute and smile. Then we’ll leave you alone.

Parent says: We have too much clutter. I’ll pay you 25 cents for every toy you’ll donate to the thrift store.

The 5-year-old hears: Go ahead and play with your toys. I wouldn’t dream of making you get rid of anything. I love your toys as much as you do, even the ones you haven’t played with for months. I was really talking to your brother and sister.

The 7-year-old hears: Mommy is rich, and this is a great opportunity to earn money for a new video game system and all of the accessories. Bag up every single toy you own, including that expensive dragon castle and those keepsakes from your great-grandparents, and when you run out of things to sell, go ahead and sell your brother’s and sister’s stuff.

The 12-year-old hears: I’ll pay you 25 cents for every toy that you’ll donate to a thrift store. Yes, one Barbie shoe is totally considered a toy, and holds the same value as a stuffed animal and everything else. Broken toys are considered toys, too, and it’s my fault that I didn’t specify that in the first place.

What’s that? You think I should also pay you for all of the hand-me-down toys that your brothers are turning in, because they used to be your toys? That, my child, is a fabulous idea.

Lisa Pemberton is one busy mama, raising three children while working as a reporter at The Olympian. Reach her at lpemberton@theolympian.com.

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