The Parent Rap
One of the best things about having a child is watching them acquire, over years, the basic skills that make us human, and realizing, in fact, how hard fought the battle of acquiring them actually is. Watching a human learn how to sit, then crawl, then stand, then walk, makes seeing them finally run away from you all the more satisfying and heart-rending. And there are the lesser, but still impressive skills, the getting of spoons into mouths and the pencil holding. All of it, you’ll find, is quite impressive and immersive, if you’re really paying attention.
But nothing has impressed me quite so much as being a participant and beholder of my daughter Zelda learning to talk. From her first “dadas” and “mamas” to now, where full sentences tumble out of her three-year old motor mouth as if they were vomit or rainbows after a good hard rain, I have listened and repeated, documented and corrected.
Well, “corrected,” sometimes. Early in her speaking career I noticed that I delighted, as any parent does, in her mispronunciations. I kept a list. I followed along and I sometimes encouraged her, by altering my own English and using *her* words in its place. I knew that I was encouraging something selfishly, but I couldn’t stop myself.
I filled a notebook with a weird language all her own.
All kids do the best they can to acquire language. It’s an amazing feat, a truly overwhelming and awe-inducing state, to watch a kid learn how to speak in the space of three years. Now, Zelda is almost three and a half and she says things like, “the lyrics to this song are too quiet,” or, “I don’t like almond milk because it doesn’t taste good.” I’m proud of her, so proud, to see the tiny, well-spoken person she’s become.
But my heart aches to see the baby sloughed off of her like skin during a pedicure. A disgusting metaphor, I admit it, but it’s that transformative: all her rough edges are washing down the drain as she explains to me how water pipes work, or how her new classroom’s foundation is being built with cement. I listen to her sing “Hard Knock Life” and daily hear the words corrected: “Knop” has been replaced by “knock;” “empty velly life” is now “belly,” and and am weirdly thankful that she still occasionally says “hotton blankets” instead of cotton.
I am full to bursting when she corrects me. “What’s a hotton blanket?” I ask, just to hear her say the words. “COTTON, Mommy,” she said the other day as I died inside thinking about how dumb I must have sounded to her ever-evolving brain. “My God, does she think I don’t know the word cotton now?”
I vowed when Zelda was born never to baby talk to her, never to talk down to her. Her father did the same. It came naturally to us, to speak to her as if she were an everyday, normal person. And, probably at least partially because of that, she’s a very well-spoken, precocious little pile of bones. “I was a baby once, then I grew up. Everyone was a baby before,” she said at bedtime a few weeks back. I was so impressed that I asked her to tell me what happens next even though generally my policy is never to ask for more information at bedtime. “Then if you grow long enough, you get to be a baby again. That’s da life cycle,” she said, impressed with herself and her newly acquired term. “It is,” I said, not bothering to correct her about the details of “da life cycle.”
I don’t know if it’s satisfying, in this way, to all parents, to hear their child simply be wrong sometimes. But it is to me, still. The last vestiges of her babyhood are moving West like all the young tech bros, but a part of her is still here, on the Eastern seaboard with her parents, where we are better stocked with facts than she is. One day, I’m sure, she’ll know more than I do. But for now, I’m the only one keeping notes.
The Parent Rap is an endearing column about the fucked up and cruel world of parenting.