I’m getting the Look. You know the one: the face loses expression, the entire body goes still. From an adult, that unblinking stare would be rude and not a little unnerving. From a kidlet, it’s more a sign of intense concentration, a holding pattern as they work out what to do next. They use it whenever something in their world does not compute, which happens a lot when you’re a preschooler.
I get it most often in response to something I’ve said. As I wait for this four-year-old’s next move in the game of conversation, I can almost hear her processing her options.
I could pretend she didn’t say it. From experience with other munchkins, I’d be surprised if this isn’t the leading contender. Not a bad tactic: if you ignore It, It sometimes goes away. But letting things slide isn’t yet in her repertoire: I’m guessing it may never be her strong suit. Processing, processing.
I could ask if she’s stupid. I’m pretty sure that’s one of the options under consideration, albeit maybe not phrased quite that baldly. But even these days, out-and-out insulting someone so much bigger than you must be rejected as unwise. Processing, processing.
I could ask her to say it again. That’s likely in there too: rejected, I’m guessing, because she judges correctly that it will bring no joy. She heard what I said, all right. Processing, processing.
Whirr, click. The processing is done. She’s decided on her move.
Why do you call it a finner when it’s a fing-grrr?
Her articulation is phonetically perfect; her emphasis likewise perfect for the job at hand. An otherwise apparently competent adult has mispronounced a simple word—finger—and she wants to know why.
Did you hurt your finner?
She had come out from the back bedroom, holding up her hand in the universal gesture indicating a wounded paw. My question was not entirely innocent: there being no baby-talk in her repertoire either, I wondered how she will react to mine. I can hear the game commentators in the background: She shoots, she scores the Look.
But with her question—Why did you call it a finner when it’s a fing-grrr?—the puck is now back in my end. I must somehow stickhandle my way out of what I’ve gotten myself into.
Why did I call it a finner?
Layers of sub-text swirl around me. The adult with the wounded paw makes light of their own injury—I hurt my finner!—acknowledging the pain, damn it, and asking for sympathy, while admitting that there is no grievous hurt. The adult asking a peer, a teen or a child—Did you hurt your finner?—offers sympathy (half in fun, full in earnest) while inviting the other to make light of it.
But beyond the finner, why play with baby-talk at all? Why incorporate a child’s mispronunciations into adult usage?
In my parent’s home, the use of “bindy” survived a sister’s inexplicable (and long-since-abandoned) substitution of it for “basement”. In my home, a “serviette” is a “fuzzy-wet”, even for adults who never knew the originator as a child. These are word play: not jokes or puns or witticisms, true, but word play nonetheless. Within a shared context, they succintly evoke and extend a sense of connection.
Like the baby accepting as funny any strange noise repeated often enough, so do we accept repeated silliness as a reminder of past play and as an invitation to play yet again. Baby-talk is on the same continuum as repeating punchlines of corny jokes at the apropos moment; it’s in the same genre as the shared look of silent appreciation when someone does something silly that has us remembering when.
Why did you call it a finner when it’s a fing-grrr? Her question still hangs between us.
Well, I was just playing.
She’s not buying It. This time, she chooses to let It go and turns away, looking for a more compatible partner. What is it Stephen Covey said? You can’t talk your way out of a problem you behaved your way into.
Or played your way into, as the case may be. But that’s all right. We’ll have other opportunities. Whether everyone appreciates it all the time or not, the family that stays together, plays together.