the language of childhood

I recently returned from two months in Oregon, where I was helping my sister and brother-in-law with childcare for their two young daughters, my beloved nieces. My role was to fill pandemic-era gaps: to watch ten month-old Alice (who under normal circumstances would have been in daycare) when both her parents were in virtual meetings, to help keep five year-old Mabel focused during remote kindergarten (this proved to be impossible), to make some snacks and meals, and to help around the house. Beyond this, there was another role that I hadn’t anticipated, but which turned out to be one of the most important: to be a playmate to Mabel, whose in-person time with kids her own age had been reduced to almost nothing.

To clarify: I had expected to do a lot of playing with Mabel, who is one of the most imaginative, creative people I’ve ever met. But it hadn’t occurred to me that I’d have to do all of that playing on her level. During normal visits with my nieces and nephew, I play with them in age-appropriate ways — I let them lead and I follow, to the best of my ability. During this visit, though, it became clear that Mabel needed me to shed my adulthood and play with her as though I were actually a five year-old. The more time I spent with her, attempting to shape-shift, the more I realized that it was a question of language — or rather, of the uses to which we put language.

Ironically, or maybe appropriately, it’s proving difficult to find the right language to explain what I mean. I guess I can start by saying that even though my niece and I were both speaking English (except when we were speaking her made-up language, Dodo), mine is the language of productivity and hers is the language of exploration.

When I speak, I am trying to get a point across as intelligently and intelligibly as possible. I am trying to succeed at something — to communicate an idea well enough with words so that the listener understands the thought’s preverbal essence. I’m always reaching to produce meaning with language.

When Mabel speaks, she is not trying to do anything or reach anything; she’s just having fun. And that fun does not have to go in any particular direction — it is unguided, open-minded, nonjudgmental, and extremely unproductive (except for, of course, producing fun). When we played together, it did not matter (nor occur) to her that her Dodo and my Dodo sounded nothing alike. But I found myself observing, “Mabel’s Dodo is very p-heavy, so I should add more p sounds to mine.” There was no point, though, because each time Mabel spoke Dodo, it was nothing like the last.

Mabel and I did a lot of role-playing games while I was there. Because she liked to do it out of her parents’ earshot, she took to calling it “the private thing” and would often ask me, “Ruthie, can we do the private thing in your bedroom?” (I never had the heart to explain to her why this could get me in a lot of trouble.) The first time we did the private thing, I was Charlotte and she was Wilbur, because we had just finished reading Charlotte’s Web together. Day by day, she morphed into various creatures that were out to get Charlotte. The ways that they entrapped her became more and more nonsensical. Several times I thought to myself, this is amazing and I want to remember it to write it all down later, but there’s nothing to grab hold of — not one thing leads to another, there’s not an ounce of logic or reason, the contradictions are vast, and the names and concepts are all gibberish. So, our words and actions disappeared into thin air as soon as they were said and done — the essence of unproductive.

I realized, after about a week of the private thing, that I kept trying to make order out of the chaos, to impart meaning. But it didn’t work, because it takes two to tango. No matter how many times I steered us in the direction of a traditional story with a beginning, middle, and end, Mabel shoved us back into the avant-garde. I also realized that I filter and judge myself all the time, even at play — which is pretty oxymoronic. I kept trying to be clever and witty, and feeling silly whenever I said anything banal or inane instead (which was 95% of the time, because kids take a lot out of you). How sad to be so self-conscious, especially when Mabel was so reliably delighted with me and no one else could even hear us.

But mine is the language of honing and chiseling, of documenting for posterity. If the spoken word doesn’t stand up to future judgment, should it have been said in the first place? Mabel’s and all children’s, meanwhile, is the language of living in the present. If they’re amused and entertained, language has served its purpose.

I was so lucky to immerse myself in the language of childhood for a few months, after decades away. I definitely did not regain my fluency, but by the end of my visit, I felt much less self-conscious about speaking (or singing) nonsensically, letting words leave my mouth unshaped, as utterances more than thoughts.

This long-winded, belabored attempt to describe my experience, however, belies my claim to have learned anything from it. Ah well — or as they say in Dodo, poppy godo dopo.

P.S. That’s Mabel with her pet flamingo, whose given name is Coco but who rechristened herself Fabulous (Faby for short) at the age of 18, around the same time she left her home in Florida with her brothers, Snowy the snowman and Bouncy the crib toy, to live with Mabel in Portland. Faby is quite vain and ceaselessly demands that you ask her questions about herself.

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