Parenting Through Language Barriers

Parenting Through Language Barriers

For me, one of the more complicated things about being a new dad is the language barrier. This isn’t something you can plan for ahead of time. There is no DVD series to learn baby talk. The dialects are as numerous and varied as the babies speaking it. And, for someone like me, who is rather attached to language, the whole thing can be a bit overwhelming.

In the first few days of his life, I remember how confounding Bennett’s cries were to me: the high-pitched urgency of his cry put me on high alert. I soon developed a mental check-list, which I habitually ticked through as I looked down at my red-faced son. I remember thinking that this must be akin to what rookie first responders feel when they arrive at an accident, only to find someone incapable of telling them what has happened.

Recently, at about four months old, Bennett has started to emote rather than just wail. At this point, I can tell by his intonation what’s going on with him. To be honest, I’ve been looking forward to this day since Bennett’s birth. I couldn’t wait until Bennett could string together sounds, supposing that the more sounds he made, the better chance I had to make sense of them. I was halfway correct: As Bennett’s sonic “vocabulary” has grown, so has my understanding of his needs and wants. This is more a matter of nuance than of pure expression, however. I still have to run through my check-list; I just have a better idea where to start.

In my last post, I described how Bennett’s sign language is starting to bridge the gap between guttural holler and spoken language. Part of my frustration as a father, particularly early on in Bennett’s life, was just how ineffective the spoken word was with him. There was the practical frustration of being unable to explain why things weren’t nearly as bad as they seemed. Beyond that, I couldn’t help but feel inadequate as a caregiver—because words are so much a part of caregiving. Think about it: Your Mom didn’t just take your temperature and hand out medicine. She talked to you about it; she told you that you were going to be fine. She didn’t just help you get better; she made you feel better.

So you can imagine how clueless a caregiver I was early on. All I could do was give bottles and change diapers. I did learn how to shush Bennett so that he’d stop crying and settle down. But that felt more like a magic trick than anything palliative. So the communicative limitations weren’t Bennett’s alone. I was the adult here, but I was essentially a baby myself, in terms of expressive ability. I am reminded of this every time I say, “I love you” to Bennett, because, just as the words come out of my mouth, I recall, for the umpteenth time, that he doesn’t know what in the world I’m talking about.

The experts tell you to speak to your children as though they could speak back to you. Scrub baby talk from your vocabulary, they say, and use real words and full sentences. It’s okay to make nonsense sounds. It’s not okay to create your own hybrid language. Don’t say “fizzy-wizzy” when you mean effervescent. Just say “fizzy” and be done with it. And this makes good sense, but like a lot of expert advice, it doesn’t make my life as a parent any easier … right now.

When Bennett is giving the valedictorian address (I hope!) at his college graduation, I’m sure I’ll lean back in my chair and congratulate myself for showering my son with proper English from Day One. For now, though, the language barrier is stretching me some, personally. I have never been a real touchy-feely guy, but I am beginning to warm up to the use of touch in lieu of words. If you ask my wife, she’ll tell you all about my tendency to speak when I really ought to hug instead. With Bennett, I’ve had to unlearn my preference for the spoken word and learn how to communicate by touch as well. I practice this when I feed Bennett at night. I pretty much jostle him about all day, but, at night, I try very hard just to hold him tenderly and warmly. Basically, I think fuzzy thoughts and try to hold him in a snuggly way. While this makes me feel like a dolt, I have learned to put my personal aversion to touchy-feely things behind me and to focus on Bennett. I do this so that he may feel my love for him. And, I can tell from his gaze that he gets my point.

So, on a given weekday night, you’ll find me holding Bennett very thoughtfully. Sometimes, I’ll be doing this with a soundtrack playing in the back of my mind. This happens spontaneously, of course, but, if you were to read my mind, you would probably hear Elton John doing “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.” Don’t ask me why. All I know is, when I’m particularly thoughtful about being loving, Bennett seems to settle deeper into my arms, give me a half smile, and immediately drift off to sleep. It may be that he’s had a busy day full of new experiences at Primrose. Still, I like to think that he’s just feeling his dad’s love tonight.


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