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Monkey Hear, Monkey Say

Maddie’s always had a good set of
ears on her, and began showing evidence a long time ago that
she’s got quite a memory to go with that sharp hearing. At
first it was a bit disconcerting to hear sophisticated phrases come
out of her mouth, but I’ve gotten used to it, and now find it
amusing to hear her use my words to describe something.

I remember one of the first times it happened: we were having lunch
the spring before Cora was born and Brian asked Maddie if it had
been cold at the park. “It was a little chilly,” she
replied judiciously, “but not too bad at all.” She was
maybe twenty months old at the time, and I wasn’t prepared to
hear her say such comparative statements; I was still in awe of
anything more elaborate than, “Mama, up!” coming out of
her mouth.

I quickly realized she was parroting back
phrases I use frequently, and didn’t necessarily understand
exactly what they meant even if she did get the general gist of it.
The more I saw her do that, though, the more I realized I was
supplying her with a way of expressing something inside herself.
Here’s an example of what I mean:

One morning that same spring we were sitting eating breakfast and I
opened the drapes to reveal a beautiful, sparkly day. I talk a lot
about nature and its beauty, wanting Maddie to appreciate it as
much as I do, but that morning I didn’t say anything.
Madeleine turned, looked outside, and said, “What a beautiful
day outside. Absolutely gorgeous.”

Now, I’m sure she’s heard me say that exact phrase many
times before. But that morning she looked, she saw, and she wanted
to express what she felt about the view. I had literally given her
the vocabulary to say what was in her heart.

So I love that she’s been borrowing my words, but I’m
having to be more and more careful these days; my kiddo drinks
everything in – and not necessarily the things you want her
to hear. Even as I hand her a vocabulary for joy and beauty,
I’m teaching her how to express her frustration and anger at
others as well.

About a week ago Maddie was playing with one of her new Christmas
toys. It’s a great pull toy by Melissa and Doug that has
three animals – a zebra, a giraffe, and an elephant- who
connect to each other. You can unstuck them and rearrange them into
weird animal shapes but you’ve got to put certain pieces in
certain places or they won’t link together. Maddie was
patiently (for a 2-year-old) trying to figure out how the pieces
stacked back together but having limited success. Finally, she
gritted her teeth and said

“Oh, COME ON people! Are you KIDDING me here? What’s
the problem?”

Now I know she’s never heard me say that to her or her
sister, but it certainly sounds like me, especially when stuck in
traffic. I think I can honestly say that I’ve never cussed
around her, but I’ve become freshly aware of my job as role
model through these instances; kids really do listen, the really do
absorb, and they really do mimic. I know we’ve all been
embarrassed by the things that come out as our kids play dollies or
role-playing; too much is revealed about our weaknesses as parents
(a friend of mine still cringes when she thinks of her 2-year-old
in the church nursery, happily playing with dollies, suddenly
shouting, “Because Mommy has a migraine! That’s why! So
just do it!”). But our children aren’t just learning
how to be parents themselves one day; they’re learning how to
be a member of society right now, and it all starts with us. How I
treat strangers, how I react in unfair situations, goes right into
that little noggin and comes right back out in her behavior.

Here’s my favorite illustration, and one that I think of
every time I’m tempted to go off on someone:

We were sitting at a stoplight in Manhattan a few weeks ago when
the light turned green. The person in front didn’t move, so I
gave that small, friendly little double-tap on the horn which
means, “Hey! Light’s green!” I said nothing.

But from the back seat, a little voice piped up, “Hey
everyone! Green means you can go now, in case you didn’t know

To say I cringed would be an understatement. Did I really say such
things enough for her to mimic me on this?

I don’t know which would be worse – if she knew it was
sarcastic on my part, or if she honestly thought it was helpful.
Hmmm – two years old, sophisticated vocabulary, good grasp of

Run for your life.


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