Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Dialog with a Three-Year-Old

I am a mother to a three-year-old boy and I have always tried to talk to him like he is thirteen. Or maybe twenty-three. I think that tactic worked on his infant mind, for when he started speaking it was slowly, deliberately, and with perfect enunciation -- pauses to correct himself and pauses for effect. "Look what I just said mama." Yes, he says look when he means listen.

It's these kinds of little word slip-ups that lead to endless questioning and get us into some heavy philosophical discussion of what things are, how we say what they are, and how we perceive things. Sometimes it gets scientific and I can only gloss over the answer, but I try to tell him the truth.

Too much for a three-year-old? Probably so, but I'm hoping he absorbs some reasoning and thinking skills that present themselves one day in algebra class or on his SAT analogies, just like his language lessons in the cradle have given me a three year old who has mastered all his tenses.

Sample Dialog One: The Circle/Traingle

Mikey: What would I say if I saw germs come out of me? ("What would I say..." is how he starts too many questions. We're working on it.)
Robyn: I don't know what you would say, but it's good to get germs out of you.
Mikey: What would they look like?
Robyn: They come in lots of shapes: blobby amoebas that look like 'splats', circles with hairs all around, pill shaped things, corkscrews...
Mikey: What if there was a germ that looked like a circle and a triangle?
Robyn: It can't be a circle and a triangle at the same time.
Mikey: Whyyyyy?
Robyn: Because a circle and a triangle are essentially two different things. Nothing can be round and also have three points on it.
Mikey: Ummmm. What would you say if you saw something that was a circle and a triangle?
Robyn: I wouldn't know what to say. Probably, 'Whoa.'
Mikey: Why would you say 'Whoa'?
Robyn: Because I would have no idea what I was looking at. No one's ever seen a circle/traingle. At least I haven't. I think I'd be pretty confused.
Mikey: (sing songy) No circle/triangles! We can't have any circle triangles! No no no!

Sample Dialog Two: What to call it?

Mikey: Mama, is that called a car? (pointing to a weird looking car)
Robyn: Yes, it is a car. Don't say 'called.' Say, 'Is that a car?'
Mikey: Is that a car?
Robyn: Yes. What something is and what something is called are two different things, you know.
Mikey: When can I say 'called'?
Robyn: If you see something you've never seen before and you have no idea what to call it, you can say 'What is that called?' And if you're asking about things with proper names you can say 'What is this river called?'
Mikey: Mama, is that a car? (pointing to a regular old car)
Robyn: Yes!
Mikey: Hee hee. Mama, I didn't say 'caaaaallled.'

Sample Dialog Three: The Doppler Effect

Mikey: Mama, why when big trucks that aren't fire engines go by does it sound like 'woooOOOOOOOooooo!?' (I love his sentence structures)
Robyn: You mean how the sound gets higher and lower?
Mikey: Yeah!
Robyn: It's the Doppler effect. The sound waves get stacked up as they come toward you, and they get stretched back out as they go away, so they change pitch.
Mikey: Why?
Robyn: Um, 'cause waves behave kind of like objects? I think that's why they get pushed together. Light does it too.
Mikey: Whyyyyyy? Why did they decide to make it like that? (he is stuck on 'they' and thinks everyone 'decides' to do things)
Robyn: I don't know, I'm not a scientist.
Mikey: You ARE a scientist! You AAARE!
Robyn: No, I'm not. I can't explain it. I can show you in a book though. I have a book with pictures.
Mikey: Ok.

We have these kinds of lessons a few times a day. I feel weird sometimes because when I pass other stroller-pushers on the street they are usually not engaged in a discussion or any kind of coversation with their child beyond "Mommy look!" answered with "Yeaaaah...that's nice honey..." So I feel like I'm doing something right.

I've gotten stange looks, but I've also gotten compliments on my answers to Mikey's endless questions. A lady in the bathroom at the library: "What a great way to explain that! I never thought of that..." after I told him why red is hot and blue is cold.

Maybe it makes me a nerd and maybe I'm making my son into a nerd (I have a feeling he'll be studly enough to pull it off though). I'm sure our little daily dialogs can't hurt. And I think I get as much out of them as Mikey does.


  1. I have heard that baby-speak is not the best thing for an infant. I myself never understood why people insisted on cooing over newborns. I guess it makes sense once and a while, but wouldn't you want your kid to grow up articulate.

    Your son Mikey is more well-spoken then any three year old I've ever come across. And I include myself in that count ;-p

    I love those sample dialogs. So cute. It sounds like Mikey is going to enter school already ahead. It's wonderful that you both get something out of those little moments. I'm sure anyone who reads this post will also get something out of it. I know I have.

  2. I am quite certain our mother must have answered all of our questions in the same intelligent and serious manner. Otherwise, how did we turn out so smart? We both went into kindergarten already knowing how to read and write (in cursive, even!)
    Years ago I asked our cousin Kimmy's daughter, then in first grade, to write her name on something. I was appalled to find she didn't know how. Obviously, children aren't learning anything in school these days, so it is up to you to teach Mikey everything he needs to know! I lay the burden on you! I hope that makes your day. Heehee.
    Auntie Blea

  3. I feel desperately sorry for Mikey; you are doing everything you can to destroy his imagination, and his connection with the world!! To tell him a thing cannot be both a circle and a triangle at the same time... what are you some sort of guardian of scientific rationality. Let the kid explore. Let him see connections, overlap, plurivocality wherever he sees it. Stop molding his mind into your myopic framework!!

  4. kulturcritic = best comment ever. Mikey is 5 now, by the way, and he draws pictures of aliens with fifty arms, wiggly silverware, windmill monsters... and we spend our weekends dancing in the living room to music and playing ukuleles and harmonicas. I guess my myopia really did a number on him. His creativity is obviously stifled.

    When he was learning to speak, I thought it might be important to encourage a framework sort of thinking. Now that he knows more words than I do, we have a blast. But we still look at science books and try to make good sense of them.


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