Where’d my toddler learn THAT!?!

The other day I was sitting on the sofa when, out of the blue, my toddler came up to me and said, ‘Daddy, c+nt.’

As you can imagine, I looked at her in shock. ‘What did you just call me?’ I gasped.

‘Daddy, c+nt.’

I got down on her level and looked her in the eye. ‘If you ever say that to me again -‘

‘Daddy c+nt, me hide.’

She wanted to play hide-and-seek. Thank God.

The way kids learn to talk is nothing like the way you learn a language at school. There, it’s hideously formulaic. Nuance? Nah. Emotion? Hell no! But can you ask directions to the train station where you’ll buy a return ticket to an A-ha concert? You bet I can! (This was already a dated reference even when I was at school – we’d moved on to New Kids On the Block by then).

The way to truly learn a language is to do it the way kids do it: by immersing yourself in it, listening to the way it’s spoken, the way it’s used, and experimenting with it to find ways of expressing your thoughts and ideas that are unique to you. Sure, you’re going to make plenty of mistakes along the way, but it’s the only way to become fluent. And it’s damned entertaining for the rest of us.

My two-year-old is at this stage now, and it is a daily dose of fascinating. Except that, as she attends nursery, mother-toddler groups, play dates and the houses of family members, I’m not always in control of the influences she’s exposed to.

Like the other night when I was hurrying her up to bed. ‘Come on, get a move on,’ I said, halfway up the stairs.

She turned to me, slowly took out her dummy, and in the manner of a person around thirteen years older said, ‘What’s the rush?’

It stopped me in my tracks. Where the hell did that come from?

Possibly the same place as her accent. My wife and I were both raised in the south, so we speak Estuary English with just a touch of West Country. I therefore have no idea why my daughter has started to speak as though she’s from the West Midlands.

It’s not a train but a ‘trine’, not a table but a ‘tie-bull’. We get on a ‘boose’ and wave ‘boy-boy’, and when mummy brushes my little one’s hair, she doesn’t ‘loik’ it. It’s like having a miniature Frank Skinner running round the house – every vowel sound is everso slightly off.

She also has no idea about social niceties – that just because you can say something doesn’t mean you should. I asked her to describe someone to test her communication skills. Is he tall or short? ‘Short.’ Is he thin or fat? ‘Fat, like daddy.’

Out the mouths of babes…

And that’s before we mention the profanities. The other day I got cut up at a junction and snapped, ‘Asshole.’ Driving on down the road, I suddenly heard this little voice from the back going, ‘Ash-hole. Ash-hole.’ My wife made the mistake of laughing, and lo, we now have a potty-mouthed toddler whose favourite word is going to get us banned from the church playgroup.

Her storytelling is a bit bizarre at the moment too, focusing on the trivialities and glossing over the important stuff. After a whole day with granny on Monday, she summed it up with, ‘Natasha came to see granny, and Barry came to see my tongue.’

I have no idea what that means.

Still, if you really listen, sometimes she gives you pearls of wisdom. When she noticed the dog had a sore foot, she asked me what was wrong, and I told her to ask the dog. This she did, waited for an answer, then said to me, ‘Dog food needs butter.’ Problem solved.

But for me, the funniest thing was when I was putting her to bed the other night. My wife made a clatter in the kitchen and my daughter said, ‘Mummy noise.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Mummy made a noise.’

‘Mummy upstairs?’

‘No, she’s downstairs in the kitchen. It’s right below us.’

‘Kitchen?’

‘Yes,’ I replied, pointing. ‘It’s below, right here.’

Pushing back her covers, she climbed out of bed, got on her hands and knees and blew on the carpet.

‘What are you doing?’ I asked.

‘Kitchen,’ she replied.

‘Yes, it’s below here.’

And she bent forward and blew on the carpet again.

‘Why are you -?’ I started, and the penny dropped.

You forget that kids can’t always differentiate your words.

I can’t imagine why she thought daddy was pointing at the floor and saying, ‘Blow here.’

 

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Aspie Family Update, Pt 2

The continuing update into my nineteen-month old daughter’s past couple of months, in which she has developed from a cute, precocious, intelligent and outgoing little girl into a cute, precocious, intelligent and outgoing little girl who throws a tantrum if she doesn’t get what she wants.

Telephones

Izzie has loved telephones for a long time, but in the past couple of months her proficiency has developed tenfold. Before, she would grab her mummy’s phone and after entering the wrong code several times, lock it for the next five minutes; now she presses the button on the side, thus opening the camera app, and uses that to get to the photographs, bypassing the code altogether. Once there, she swipes through the various pictures, lingering on those of herself (she has developed a considerable amount of vanity too), and if it’s a video, she taps it with her finger to make it play.

It’s true what they say – the younger generations really do find it easier to understand technology. I mean, she’s pre-verbal, can’t read or speak beyond monosyllabic grunts, but she can navigate a mobile phone using the touch screen. Makes me feel really stupid that I can barely check the time on my phone without accidentally sending a text message!

The trouble comes when Izzie gets hold of the house mobile. She loves pushing the buttons, holding it up to her ear, and saying, ‘Ay-oh? Ay-oh?’ She loves snatching it off you when you’re in the middle of a conversation, then chattering away to whoever’s on the other end in Izzie-ese, before saying, ‘Bye-bye,’ and disconnecting. And in particular, she loves playing with it when you’re not about.

The first time I heard it dialling out, I grabbed it off her and hung up. The second time, a few days later, I heard a voice saying, ‘That number has not been recognised.’ We’ve been very careful since then, so I have no idea how she got the phone a few days ago. I heard a voice, quiet, distant, just on the edge of my perception, saying, ‘What is the nature of your emergency?’

I used to be an emergency call operator, and of the ninety calls I took a day, at least two were from toddlers playing with phones (or occasionally people dusting them). When I worked for the police, I used to call back and give the parents a bollocking; now that I’m one of those parents, I’m so glad the 999 call taker accepted my apology and let me simply hang up.

I’m not looking forward to our next phone bill, however.

Imaginative Play

A couple of months ago Izzie would imitate our behaviours without really understanding the why’s and wherefore’s of what she was doing. Now, instead of simply imitating us, she actively plays with things using her imagination. It might not sound like a lot, but it’s a massive leap forward.

Like her dolls, for example. I never thought I’d be the father of a child who plays with dolls. Not because I didn’t want to perpetuate patriarchal gender roles, but because it never really factored into my thinking. Keyboard, teddy bear, colouring book, toy car – that’s my thinking when it comes to entertaining kids, whatever their sex.

My wife Lizzie, on the other hand, is very much into buying Izzie play kitchens, plastic food, shopping trolleys, push chairs and, since November, dolls. Big dolls, little dolls, skinny dolls, fat dolls – we now live in a doll’s house. And other than being freaky and creepy as hell, it’s rather illuminating.

When we first gave her a doll, Izzie stuck her fingers in its eyes, trying to peel off the veneer, and flung it about like any other plaything. But within a couple of weeks, she started caring for it. She gets out the changing mat, finds a nappy and tries to change it; she brushes its (non-existant) hair; she tries to feed it and give it water; and she cuddles it.

The most important thing about this is that she knows the doll isn’t real, but she pretends it is real. Instead of simple imitation, she is playing, experimenting, using her imagination to have fun. I know this because she picks up imaginary food in her fingertips, feeds it to the doll, feeds it to herself, feeds it to her mother and me, and giggles every time we pretend it’s real.

She has recently acquired a number of Barbie dolls and greatly enjoys sitting them on the sofa to watch TV, changing their outfits, kissing them, and then making them kiss each other. Much as I dislike dolls, we may be introducing a Ken to the party…

Organising and Locating

Speaking of kissing, Izzie has become very bossy when it comes to how she wants things. If I kiss her goodbye, she points at me and then at mummy, and nods her head as if to say, ‘Now you kiss mummy.’ Once I’ve kissed mummy, Izzie then puckers her lips at mummy, and as soon as her mother has kissed her, she points at mummy and then at me, and nods her head to say, ‘Now mummy, you kiss daddy.’ I’ll tell you, all this goodbye kissing is exhausting!

But the pointing and demanding is not limited to that, oh no. Every meal time, she likes to stipulate where we all sit. She looks at mummy then points to a chair, and once mummy sits, she looks at me and points to another chair. If we don’t sit in the chair she’s specified or, God forbid, we muck about and I sit in mummy’s chair while she sits in mine, then Izzie lets us know just how cross we make her.

Every morning after I’ve changed her nappy she opens a drawer and picks out the vest and tights she wants to wear, and if I dress her in those she then opens the wardrobe and chooses a dress. After which she heads to the mirror and checks herself out, smoothes her hair (vanity), and generally giggles at how good she looks. To be fair, she does have a keen eye for an outfit, but I do sometimes have to step in at some of the hideous combinations. Peppa Pig leggings don’t go with just anything, you know!

This particularity extends to where she wants things. This book? She wants it here. That teddy bear? Put it there. No, not there: an inch to the left. No, your other left. Oh, give it here, I’ll put it where it’s meant to go. There. Or maybe there. You know what? It looked better where you put it first time.

Books

And lastly, she has fallen in love with books. So much so, in fact, that when she goes to bed,  instead of cuddly toys she picks out a couple of books to sleep with. She can’t actually read them, but she likes the pictures, I guess.

This actually serves a double benefit. It means most nights she goes down without a fuss. I place her on her back in the cot and she opens her book and is happy as you like. I tell her goodnight and she pretty much waves me away as if to say, ‘Yeah, yeah, goodnight, dad, shut up, I’m reading.’ And if she wakes early, then she entertains herself with her books instead of getting us up. It’s a win-win.

Except if I have to read ‘Maisy’s Bus’ one more time, I’m going to feed Maisy Mouse to Charley Crocodile, and then who’ll drive? Cyril Squirrel? Not bloody likely!

Imitation, experimentation, and intuition

How do children learn about the world? This is the issue dominating my mind right now, partly because fourteen-month Izzie is learning at an exponential rate and partly because I’ve ploughed through Sophie’s World over the last few nights and 3000 years of philosophy compressed into 400 pages is enough to make anyone’s head spin.

You can get really deep and complex and ponder the effects of sensory perceptions and experience versus the influence of innate cognition and primitive, pre-verbal mental reasoning. But if I’m not mistaken – which I might be as I haven’t really been sleeping – I’ve been able to reduce the entire field of infant learning down to three key processes:

  • Imitation: watching and copying;
  • Experimentation: fiddling until you’ve figured it out; and
  • Intuition: good god, how the hell did you know to do that?

Imitation is pretty simple. Since Izzie has seen us drink from cans, whenever she comes across one she lifts it to her mouth as though drinking. She does the same thing with deodorant cans, so it’s not a foolproof system, but the idea is right.

The good thing about imitation as a learning tool is that you don’t have to teach her – she just picks it up. Watching us press the pointy end of the pen to paper, whenever she gets her hands on a writing implement she now seeks out a newspaper, TV guide, or daddy’s book so that she can make lots of lovely little squiggles. Seeing us use the sponge to wash her face, every time I bath her now she grabs it off me, wets it, and washes my face – usually covering me with water. And when we tell her we’re going out, she grabs our shoes and tries to put them on our feet to help us get ready quicker – or not, as the case invariably is.

On the other hand, the bad thing about imitation as a learning tool is that you don’t have to teach her – she just picks it up. So when mummy playfully throws one of the baby’s cuddly toys at me, Izzie discovers that wonderful game called ‘throwing things at daddy’, but instead of limiting herself to soft, light toys, she thinks it’s all fair – books, coasters, wooden blocks, the kinds of things that really hurt when they connect with your shin bone, or elbow, or forehead. Likewise, because she sees daddy turn on his Xbox by pressing the on/off button on the front and hears a terribly interesting ‘beep’, at random times she’ll toddle over and press it – even if daddy has been playing a game for half an hour and hasn’t saved it! And because she sees Ozzie the dog chasing the cat around the lounge, for the last few days she’s been terrorising Korea (in case you’re wondering, she’s a rescue cat and that’s the name we’re stuck with).

Experimentation is a slightly more cerebral process. It’s all about taking an object and figuring out its intrinsic physical qualities. Whenever Izzie gets a new toy she starts out by bashing it against things (how heavy is it? What noise does it make?), proceeds to bite it (is it food? What does it taste like?), and then turns it all round and decides which is the most enjoyable way of interacting with it. So she’s gradually discovered that it’s more rewarding to press the keys on the piano thing we got her from a car boot sale (plinky-plonky style) than slap it or slobber all over it – although I kind of wish she hadn’t. And she’s discovered that if she pulls the oven door on her toy kitchen really hard, she can yank it off and then throw it at daddy – thus combining experimentation and imitation.

She’s also been using experimentation to discover how, if something doesn’t work one way, another way might produce a better outcome. Hitting her xylophone with the end of the beater that the string was attached to made a muffled thudding sound; now she uses the proper end and smacks the crap out of those metal bars with the volume and melody of a pneumatic drill. Drawing on paper with marker is all well and good, but drawing on her legs and/or dress gets a much more exciting reaction. And if she wants me to read her a book, she brings it to me and puts it on my lap, and if I don’t read it, she hits me with it, which is equally as fun.

You see, Izzie also experiments by varying causes to provoke multiple effects – a long-winded way of saying she tries various methods to manipulate her parents to get what she wants. Screaming, crying, stamping her feet, balling her fists – and if daddy doesn’t give in, she goes to mummy and repeats the process, and vice versa. She likes to point, to say ‘uh’ to indicate ‘that’, and failing that, to reach for it and clamber up on the furniture and move things about until she either gets it or gets given an equally attractive alternative. And if you’re walking in a direction she doesn’t want to go, she’s discovered that instead of resisting, screaming or crying, she can just go limp and sink down to the ground like a puppet with its strings cut, refusing to budge until you turn the other way, whereupon she springs into life like Popeye with spinach in his belly. Too clever for her own good, that one.

Which brings us to the final learning process: intuition. Or rather, instead of a learning process it’s more like a remembering process because I have no freaking idea how to explain some of Izzie’s behaviours beyond the possibility that past lives exist. These are the things she does that she has not witnessed so can’t be imitating, hasn’t experimented with, and by rights should not have the reasoning power or cognition to achieve.

Like a few weeks back when I drank a Coke from a glass bottle and left it with a few dregs in the bottom on my father-in-law’s lawn. A few minutes later, Izzie totters over, picks up the bottle, sees it has some left in it, carries it over to the table, pours it into a glass, puts the bottle on the table top, picks up the glass, knocks back the Coke in a single gulp, puts the glass back on the table and toddles off again. If there weren’t other witnesses, I would have doubted the evidence of my own eyes. We’re not the kind of people who pour drinks from bottles into glasses – we drink it from the bottle or else drink cans – so where did that come from?

Similarly, I was bathing her the other day when she picked up her mum’s lady razor from the side of the bath, and despite never having seen or touched one before, proceeded to shave my forearm. Had it not had the plastic cover over the blade, I would have an arm as bald as an Olympic swimmer’s. The thing is, holding a wiggly-handled lady razor is quite a skill for a baby, especially getting it the right way up and to then run it down my arm multiple times in perfect imitation of a person shaving – where did that come from?

My mum took her to a toy shop and after looking around for a few minutes, Izzie took a box off the shelf, lay it on the floor, and then pressed it repeatedly with her foot. So far, so normal, except that inside the box was a mat you put on the floor then press with your foot to make noises – so how the hell did she know to do that?

And the other day we gave her a yellow duster, and what did she do with it? Yup. Started dusting the surfaces. I can guarantee she’s never seen us do that before!

So here is my treatise on child learning: imitation, experimentation, intuition…unless my daughter is the reincarnation of a Coke-drinking, music-mat-playing barber who likes cleaning, in which case I’m not sure I can generalise using her as my case study.

Through a Baby’s Eyes

When people talk about parenting, they tend to focus on sleepless nights, nappies, screaming, tiredness and poop. What people don’t mention nearly so often is how much that we, as parents, can learn from our babies – about living in the moment, the dangers of preconceived notions, the creative possibilities of human ingenuity, and what our bodies are really capable of.

Everything Izzie touches, picks up, looks at and experiences, she comes at for the first time. Being around her as she stares with giggling delight at bubbles floating in the air, or screams with joy if I pick up my guitar, or laughs uproariously whenever she sees the cat, you start to realise that the world is full of wonders that we, as adults, simply take for granted.

As I was pushing her around town this afternoon, focusing on things to do, stuff to buy, she was pointing upwards and cooing. Stretched between the buildings were red, white and blue bunting for the Queen’s ninetieth, a sea of triangles fluttering in the breeze. I took a moment to stand in the sunshine and watch them, and it was beautiful, a beauty we don’t see because as adults we don’t live in the now.

It’s the same with her approach to the world. We live by rules, and fixed ideas, and received wisdom, but for babies the rules are not set. Earlier today I was trying to get Izzie to pound on her drum, but she kept turning it upside down and spinning the feet. ‘You’re doing it wrong,’ I kept thinking, and turning it right side up, and encouraging her to bang on the top, because it’s a drum.

But then I realised that there’s nothing wrong with what she was doing. To me, with my learned, conditioned way of seeing things, there is only one way of positioning a drum – upright – and one use for it – music. Her creative approach, with no concept of the ‘right’ way to use a drum, was to treat it as a toy. And why not? Why can’t we play with drum feet? Why, as adults, do we fix our viewpoints in place and categorise things as this or that without considering that they could be other? Babies teach us about the possibilities in life if we only dropped our rigid notions of how and why and simply allowed ourselves to experiment.

That said, I wasn’t overly pleased when she picked up Lizzie’s car keys and decided to bash them repeatedly into my guitar, revelling in the noise she made in the time between scratching the body and me snatching them off her. So I guess there have to be some rules in place.

What I’m really impressed by lately are a couple of navigational tricks Izzie’s come up with that reveal the incredible capacity humans have for problem solving. She’s discovered that if she puts a smooth object under her left hand when she crawls, she merely has to slide that hand and not pick it up, reducing the amount of labour involved and increasing her speed across the floor. And if she can’t reach something on the coffee table, she wheels her trolley of wooden blocks up to it and climbs inside to give herself an extra few inches of height. She’s ten months, for crying out loud – it makes you feel proud to be human.

And then there’s what she teaches us about our bodies. I see my body as a stiff, battered thing that isn’t capable of all kinds of movements – mostly exercise, to be fair. But Izzie – from sitting on the floor, she simply stands straight up without using her hands or getting to her knees first, all through the power of her legs. If she can do it, why can’t I? As we get older, we stop using certain muscles, spend too much time sitting, and our tendons tighten up and things turn into knots. But babies can do it, people who do yoga can do it, which means we can do it – we’ve just become lazy, is all.

And she’s taught me something about my body that is mind blowing – Izzie has started rolling her tongue. Since neither Lizzie nor I can roll our tongues, and I was taught at school (erroneously, as it turns out) that tongue rolling is heritable, I rushed to the mirror to make sure that there hadn’t been a mix-up at the hospital. And, after a few minutes of experimentation, straining muscles I’ve never used before, I managed to roll my tongue for the first time – after 36 years of being incapable of doing so.

Babies, then, remind us of everything we lose as we grow up, and everything we can get back if we only pay attention, and open our minds, and stop taking everything for granted. They show us how we can be creative and unfettered in our everyday lives, appreciate the world around us, and free ourselves from the prisons of our minds. And that isn’t mentioned nearly enough.