Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Who Taught You to Say THAT?!

Louisa, my almost two-year-old, is in a tape-recorder mode lately. She repeats the last word or phrase that she hears. Excerpts from her conversation last night with my mother, via FaceTime:
Savta: "Louisa, are you having a birthday soon?"
Louisa: "Birthday soon."
Savta: "Are you going to get presents?"
Louisa: "Get presents."
Savta: "Will there be cake?"
Louisa: "Cake."
Humans are born imitators. From the time babies are able to focus and see their parents, they are studying facial expressions and learning how to be behave like other humans. Since Louisa spends all her time with her family, we know exactly where her new language is coming from: us. It's also clear that sometimes she doesn't know what she's saying. She's just repeating, on auto-pilot. Beware the occasional verbal slip-up in her presence if you'd prefer she not toddle around the apartment muttering, "shit!" (oh, no, of course nothing like this has ever happened in our house...)

While the imitation starts when they're babies, it doesn't stop there. As they grow, kids continue to repeat what they hear, often without understanding the context or subtext of the phrases that they use. And of course, from the day they join a social environment such as preschool, or start watching television or listening to the radio, their language doesn't just come from their family anymore.

This hit home for me this week when my 8-year-old brought home a manuscript for a play written by her friend, in their free time at school. Ruby said she had offered to type and print five copies, because the author didn't have a printer at home. After she'd typed for a while,  I insisted she finish her homework and get ready for bed, and told her I'd finish the typing. But then I read the play. Here are some choice lines. (Don't try too hard to understand this. Dramatic influences seem to come via Ionesco): 
spagetti: are you single?
plum: raise your hand if spagetti cheated on you!
plum: pizza, stop now! no way i will ever be nice to you!
pizza: are you single
sugar plum: yes you’re annoying
pizza: thanks
plum: (smack head)
pizza: ohh and plum you’re a liar
plum: i just didn’t want you to cheat on me and sugar plum break up with pizza.  he’s a liar.
So, what, parents, would you do with this little piece of literature? I shared it with Josh and predictably we both said, "Where did they get this language from? Who talks like this?"That always seems to be the first thing we want to know--who and what the kids are imitating, when they speak in ways that don't sound familiar. 

Parents are often quick to blame others for the influences on their children, as in: my child isn't allowed to watch all those bad shows, but then my kid hears about them from the other kids [the ones with permissive, terrible parents]. Certainly, television plays a role in our kids' loss of innocence, so to speak, and it's an uphill battle to keep them sheltered from what often amounts to a Netflix-queue-o'-crap. But my kids are allowed to watch television, with limits, so I'm not about to preach in favor of abstinence from pop culture. Pop culture seeps in in many ways, and yes, kids are influenced by each other. Chalk it up to life in a social community. 

In the end, where the influence came from matters less than the effect of those influences, and how they manifest in the way that kids act--in this case, literally dramatize--the world that they are struggling to understand. I've noticed that when my kids and their friends make "plays", they sometimes act out nasty behavior between people: meanness, murders, and the like. They use play and fantasy to explore elements of life that are frightening, and off-limits. And that's fine, as long as they know they're off-limits--we discuss how good people would and should act in a similar situation.

So what did I do with the curtain-raiser at hand? I certainly didn't print it. I wrote an email to Ruby's teachers, telling them about the play: "I found the content .... unpleasant, and I don't feel comfortable reproducing it." I wanted the teachers to be aware so they can listen for the language kids are using in their daily interactions. 

And I explained to Ruby exactly what my objections were: rude, nasty characters and discussions that don't belong in a third grade play. She was incredulous at first--she said I didn't "get" the play (she's right! generational divides, already), and also, what would she say to her friends? So I told her she could tell a white lie and say she wasn't allowed to use the computer. She did admit that the play didn't make a lot of sense, anyway. And then she dropped it.

But meanwhile, I have to wonder (she says, in her Carrie Bradshaw voice-over). Did I squelch a necessary creative outlet? Or will Ruby simply avoid bringing home the next play for me to see? 

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