Watch the World Learn

I’ve had this discussion with fellow parents before but have never actually put it in to writing. I was inspired to do so by a comment on my blog by ceruleanstarshine, who it seems has the same views as I do when it comes to children, vocabulary, and education.

To begin, let me just say that I hate baby talk. I have never used it with my girls, I have never used it with other children. Any time someone has used it with my children, or has spoken to them with that sort of dumb-downed language that one might use with a puppy, I have politely requested that they stop it and that they speak to them as they would any adult. Clearly, some topics are off-limits – we don’t discuss sex, or politics, and because I am an atheist, I try to avoid religion entirely. I have no interest in shattering their belief in fairy tales or wrecking their innocence by telling them there’s no Santa Claus. But, in most regards, the verbal exchanges with my 4-year-olds differ little from those I have with a 40-year-old.

It irks me to no end when someone points out that my child “doesn’t know what a word means.” Of course a preschooler doesn’t know the meaning of the word monotonous, or audacity, or pragmatic? Any guesses as to how they’d find out?

That’s right – you tell them. The four-year-old is an inquisitive creature; the strongest word in their arsenal is why, followed closely by what. As in, “What is monotonous?”; “What is audacity?”; “What is pragmatic?”. How difficult is it to give them a simple, articulate definition and then solidify the meaning by using the word in a proper context:

“Asking me if you can have a piece of candy ten times a day gets very monotonous.”

“You have a great deal of audacity, suggesting that I go to the bank and tell them to give me money to buy you candy.”

“It would not be very pragmatic for the bank to give out loans solely so that I can stock up on candy.”

The biggest mistake a parent can make is to speak to their child with the same vocabulary that the child uses. It limits them. Is your kid stupid? Of course not. There is no such thing as a stupid child; every child has the capacity to be a goddamned genius. So why would you talk to them as if they are anything less than brilliant? I’m not claiming to raise tiny little prodigies, but I’ve got a better shot at raising future Harvard grads simply because I do not assume that my girls are not smart enough to understand or curious enough to ask about that which they do not understand.

If your first grader is reading at a first grade reading level that is not, as far as I’m concerned, something to be proud of. You should want them to be ahead of the curve rather than fall in line with it, to exceed expectations instead of just meeting them.

Before my children turned four, they knew what gravity was. They can name the closest star to Earth, and they know that the sun is actually a star. They know the nearest galaxy is Andromeda and that the Milky Way is a spiral galaxy. They know what a black hole does, that there is one in the center of the Milky Way, and that they are formed when a star goes supernova. They know all this because Kyle and I were watching Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” and they happened to walk in the room. They asked us questions. And, rather than assume that physics was too far beyond the scope of their intellect, we answered them in a way that was both easy to comprehend and inspired them to ask us more.

So if you are the type of person who looks at people like me weird when I use polysyllabic words around my children, when I correct their grammar, or when I explain abstract concepts to them, I feel bad for you. But mostly, I feel bad that you don’t have the faith or confidence in your own offspring’s ability to learn. After all, school can only teach them so much – it’s up to you to fill in the gaps.

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