296. Words

There’s a form of linguistic shorthand that adults sometimes use when they speak to children. Instead of saying, “I need to have you stop making noise,” some say, “You need to stop making noise.” Or when a child is doing something an adult doesn’t like, the adult may say, “You don’t want to do that,” instead of “I don’t want you to do that.” That kind of statement may be quite wrong.
I guess I’m a stickler on verbal precision. I think children can take things very literally. If you tell a child what he/she needs or wants, you may be giving a very confusing message – one that denies the existence of thoughts or feelings the child is experiencing. And since adults seem to know so much, and are so often right on target when they say things to children (e.g., “Be careful; that’s hot.”), children are apt to disregard their own experience and believe that they want and need what adults say they want and need.
One verbal game I’ve sometimes played with both children and adults is to take them as literally as I think children sometimes take adults. That can be very annoying. Granted, sometimes children enjoy that game. And it can help them learn to be more precise. They enjoy puns and riddles, because they like to play with the ambiguity of words. But language tricks can also drive them up a wall. If they’ve worked to put together words that communicate, they don’t want to have to go back to the beginning and do it again. They know that I know what they mean, and they don’t want me to pretend I don’t.
Adults have had more time to play with language, and sometimes some of them enjoy playing more sophisticated versions of the verbal games children play. But like children, they can also be annoyed by word games that creep into conversation. I know a lot about that tendency. As a recovering compulsive verbal trickster, I try to direct my tricks toward people who enjoy them, and limit them to moments when they’re likely to be appreciated. It used to be that when a child or adult was not amused by something I intended to be amusing, I thought all I had to do was try harder. Nowadays, I’m more apt to just drop it.
Verbal precision is a good goal. It’s good for us adults to take care to say what we mean. Both to children and to each other. And it’s good to teach children to do that, too. We can do that both by being careful about our own words (“I don’t want you to do that,” instead of “You don’t want to do that.”) and by treating children’s speech the way we’re learning to treat their writing – allowing them to succeed in their attempts to communicate, even if they’re not always as precise as we want them to eventually be.

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