210. Covering Our Tracks

Not everything we say is for children’s ears. There are various reasons adults don’t want children to hear certain thoughts or communications. We may worry that they’ll be unnecessarily frightened, excited, angered, or embarrassed. We don’t want to spark those feelings, or deal with the behavior that usually accompanies them. Ideally, we find time to say these things when children aren’t around. But sometimes we feel that these things must be said right away, and we don’t have faith that time without the children will soon happen.
My parents used Yiddish. It was a language they knew, and we didn’t. With the exception of one or two phrases we heard frequently, and figured out through context, we had no idea what they were saying. Some parents spell what they want to say, but schools being what they are, children have a tendency to learn how to spell. My wife and I used what we called “dictionary language.” Instead of saying, “Should we go out to eat?”, we’d say, “Shall we seek sustenance elsewhere?” It didn’t take long for us to hear, from our five-year-old daughter, “Can we seek sustenance elsewhere tonight?”
The restaurant example is cute, and it won’t scar children for life to hear the discussion that leads to a decision about where to eat. But there are things children shouldn’t hear. A parent may be struggling with frustration about a child’s learning problems, or any of many issues that children shouldn’t hear about. Maybe a parent is trying not to favor one child. Whether or not the parent is successful in this struggle, it does enough damage for the child to even know that it’s a struggle.
I’ve often heard adults speaking about children as if the children weren’t there. It was as though the use of the third person pronoun would somehow protect the child, or as if protecting the child was not even an issue. But little pitchers sometimes do have big ears, and some of the thoughts that can only hurt them should not be verbalized at times and in ways that go ahead and hurt. Pain isn’t always gain.
It really is best to wait. I know it’s sometimes hard. You may be afraid that you’ll forget an important thought. And sometimes you are filled with that same kind of impatience you wish your children would stifle. There are also some adults who don’t care what effect their words may have on young minds. I wish we could keep those adults away from children until they learn to care. And for those of you who have already learned to care, I wish waiting were always easy.
Until that time, there is a book I recommend: The Joys of Yiddish, by Leo Rosten.

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