431. Isabel

I recently had lunch at a restaurant with my friend Russell and his daughter Isabel, who is two and a half years old. Isabel had a lot to say, and said it. Yet she allowed us to have our conversations, too. I found that surprising, but maybe that’s because it’s been so long since I’ve spent much time with toddlers. Nowadays, I tend to think of toddlers as people who have very short attention spans, and get bored very quickly when adults have adult conversations. And I think of bored toddlers as forces to be reckoned with.
But Isabel made our time together enjoyable. I don’t know how much of our adult conversation she understood, but she seemed to be either listening to us or thinking about her own things. She smiled a lot, and spoke both when we spoke to her and when she had her own things to say. And she did have a lot to say.
I was charmed by her way of speaking. Toddlers struggle to form words and phrases, and their difficulties and mistakes can charm and amuse adults. At first, I allowed myself to be simply charmed and amused, but after a while, I reminded myself to listen to what this person was saying. There was a reason for her earnest efforts to speak the language we spoke; she wanted to communicate. Maybe she wanted to charm and amuse, too, or at least didn’t mind doing that, but communication was her main goal.
What she had to say may not have seemed as important to me as what Russell had to say; after all, Russell has been my friend for about fifteen years, and our conversations get personal, philosophical, political, and all. Isabel is not at a point in her life where she thinks about whether to vote her conscience or opt for the lesser of two evils. She thinks about the fact that a man she sees is wearing a hat. But the fact that a man is wearing a hat is as important to her as our thoughts are to us. We all try to make sense out of the world we live in.
When people learn new languages, sometimes people who already know the languages find mispronunciations and inappropriate phrases charming. My friend Olga had a Byelorussian accent, and really wanted to get rid of it; she wanted to learn to communicate more effectively, not charm. I think that’s also true, to some degree, of people who are learning their first language.
When I think about Isabel, I’m going to think about who she is. And when I talk with her (which I hope I’ll do from time to time), I’m going to make sure she knows I respect the thinking she’s doing. What goes on in children’s minds is
important. Together, we human beings can get a lot done. And we’d do better to listen well to each other; Isabel’s charm, Olga’s charm, and the charms of many other people are appealing, but we’ve got to make sure we don’t let the charms cover up the content.

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