One of the more bemusing parts of parenthood has been the way kids interpret adult language. When they’re very little, it’s adorable. Like when a little kid gets words mixed up and says things like, “I’m so proud to see that bunny!” instead of being happy to see the bunny.
As kids get older, however, the language barrier between kids and adults becomes more challenging. This shouldn’t be true, since kids gain fluency in the language of their parents. And yet, kids seem to grow less and less able to understand what their parents mean.
For example, a parent can say a simple and direct phrase like “Go wash your hands with soap and water,” and this will result in a reaction that involves no soap, no water, and hands that are as dirty as ever. In fact, it’s entirely possible that the kid will bypass the bathroom sink altogether and wind up in their room adding marker marks to the existing mess on their hands because “wash your hands” means something like “go make some art” in KidSpeak.
I’ve been studying this phenomenon in my own grade school-aged child, and I think I’ve cracked the code. For your benefit, I’ve created this handy guide of what common phrases mean to kids.
What You Say: Go get dressed.
What That Means To Kids: Go to your room and start using Legos to replicate the thing you built in Minecraft last night.
What You Say: Put your laundry away.
What That Means To Kids: Open all the drawers and toss clothes in their general direction. Do not close drawers.
What You Say: Take a shower.
What That Means To Kids: Stand in the shower but do not scrub anything below the chest. Emerge with dirt still encrusted on knees.
What You Say: Stop wrestling with your sister.
What This Means To Kids: Sit on your sister.
What You Say: Save your video game and come to dinner.
What This Means To Kids: WARNING! WARNING! This is the end of video games! There will never, ever be another opportunity to play video games! Initiate panic sequence!
What You Say: I’m going to the bathroom.
What This Means To Kids: Halt your parent and, using a tone of urgency usually reserved for tornado warnings, talk about the most trivial matter possible until your parent is hopping from foot to foot in discomfort.
What You Say: Go clean up your room.
What This Means To Kids: Go into your room, shut the door, and spend 30 minutes paging through a dictionary looking for funny words.
What You Say: I’m busy, I’ll be right there.
What This Means To Kids: Hunt down your parent and interrupt what they’re doing to ask for assistance in a complicated, and likely forbidden, task.
What You Say: Where did you put your shoes?
What This Means To Kids: Oh good, mom is looking for my shoes for me.
What You Say: What did you do in school today?
What This Means To Kids: This phrase is actually a powerful memory eraser. Do not use it unless you want to see your child’s face go utterly blank and hear the words ,”I don’t know. Nothing.”
What You Say: Please stop imitating that Uncle Grandpa show.
What This Means To Kids: Better call the ACLU because my first amendment rights are being suspended indefinitely!
Unfortunately, I have not solved the mystery of what to say to actually get kids to find their own shoes or recount important things from school. For now, I’m using the technique of repeating myself, more and more loudly, until the kids sort of do what I tell them.