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.