Life as an interchangeable part

Toddlers have a way with words. Their own way with their own words. They are some of the few people on Earth who say exactly what they mean. Pity we can’t understand any of it.

Our one-year-old has mastered his pronunciation of the words Mama and Dada. This was a happy milestone, until we realized that he was using them interchangeably when addressing his mother and me. I might have been Dada when I left for work in the morning and Mama by the time I got home again. Now, I sometimes forget to bring things home from work, but I’ve never yet left my Dada parts at the office.

Likewise, my wife can go from Mama to Dada without me perceiving a difference in her appearance, and I’m fairly well-informed regarding her anatomy. Buster might bump his knee and cry out for his mother’s loving arms with the plea, “Mama!” After the tears dry, he might tap her on the arm and point out to that very same Dada just exactly where he had hurt his leg.

We recalled Buster’s big brother going through a phase of development where he too threw these terms around without regard to gender, so we bided our time. Still, we took pains to point out which name goes with which parent whenever Buster seemed inclined to listen to our gibberish.

snowball school

Making a snowball with his brother, whose name he always gets right.

This went on until my wife proved again why she is the smart parent. “I don’t think he’s actually referring to us when he says Mama or Dada,” she explained. “I think Mama means help and Dada means look.”

Upon careful reflection, it all fell into place. Whenever he was distraught, he called out “Mama!” When he wanted to point something out, he did so to Dada, regardless of the parent at hand.

It’s nice to imagine that Mama and Dada are baby’s first words, but that doesn’t seem wholly accurate here. He’s been spouting words that don’t mimic adult speech for months, and they all mean something to him. You don’t preach with such fire and brimstone if the words don’t mean anything to you. Are Mama and Dada truly first words because they sound like words we know, even if they don’t mean what we think they should?

When it comes to valid communication, Buster’s first real word is juice. We have it; he wants it. Nothing could be plainer than his demand when he plants himself in front of the fridge and says, “Juice!” He need not be concerned whether it’s Help or Look who’s in the kitchen with him. We both have reached the stage of development where we understand the proper meaning of juice.

Thank God his parents are finally catching on to this language thing. He was beginning to worry about us.

If only we would reach developmental milestones that allowed us to understand more words, he would be much less concerned about our progress as parents.


20 comments on “Life as an interchangeable part

  1. T. D. Davis says:

    This is great – and I didn’t figure this out until my oldest became the translator for his younger sister when she was “learning to talk.” Actually, she already was talking; it just took the five year old to explain her language to us. She was worried about us for a while, too.

  2. I am convinced that my toddler has his own, internally consistent, language as well. When he is playing and ‘talking’ to his cars he does so with such vehemence that it must mean something to him. I catch similar sounds being repeated, but I haven’t the foggiest what it all might mean.

  3. mewhoami says:

    They do have a language of their own, that for sure. It’s neat that you and Help found the true meanings of his words. Wouldn’t it be interesting if we could understand them at such an early age? Imagine the truths they would reveal to us. They don’t concern themselves with hurting feelings. They just say it like it is.

    • I’m not sure I want to know what all his words mean. I’m pretty sure one of the combinations he uses are his words for ‘lazy parenting.’ He gets that accusatory look in his eyes whenever he tosses out that combination of sounds.

  4. A. van Nerel says:

    I guess it makes sense for your son not to look at you as the one with Dada parts.
    I live with my two year old niece (who by now talks non stop, mostly about the adventures of Dora the Explorer). Her first word we ever heard her say was ‘beautiful’ (It’s just a one syllable word in Dutch, which is/will be her first language). She would point to pretty much everything and say ‘beautiful’. It turned out she didn’t think the world was a magical place with rainbows and ponies, but she was merely asking what things are called. So in her case ‘beautiful’ meant ‘What is that?’
    In this case it was also her mother who caught up on that first;)

    • Your niece will be raised bi-lingual then? That’s awesome. I should have been raised so, but my father grew up during WWII when you didn’t want to seem too German. So I’m just a single language dude with no special incentive to travel to Germany.
      Is there a Dutch version of Dora?

      • A. van Nerel says:

        I’m not sure there’s ever a good excuse for wanting to seem to German (or Dutch for that matter, as neither language is very pleasing to the ear I think). Or do you have German roots if you don’t mind me asking?

        We live on the Island of Curaçao, where the official language is Papiamento, but most people speak Dutch, English or Spanish as a second language. My niece can count to ten in more languages than me;)

        There is in fact a dutch version of Dora. The main dialogue is Dutch, with some English thrown in (instead of Spanish…I prefer the English version, because I get to learn a bit of Spanish that way;))

        • My grandparents were German immigrants. My father was fluent, but during his childhood it wasn’t cool to be so German in America. He didn’t pass on the language to his children.
          We watch Spanish Dora sometimes, but it hasn’t done any of us any good.

  5. Traci says:

    With that type of interpretive powers, I think your wife should have been a linguistics major. 🙂

  6. yearstricken says:

    I bet you can’t wait until he learns “Gimme money.”

  7. G$ called me momma for quite some time and I’m sure he meant momma and that he was just doing it to be a douche. Lol. He’s gotten better with his talking, but there are times we have to look to the four year old for a more definite interpretation. They just seem to get each other, as your boys probably do.

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