Thursday, August 4, 2011

Coming to Terms with Toddlers

Watering some plants in the front yard, I had gotten lost in my thoughts, mesmerized by the glistening water as it splashed about the azaleas and ivy.

"Hi, Tim!" a cherubic greeting suddenly rang out.

It was the sing-song voice of my 5-year old next-door neighbor, Daniel.

His father was in their yard, watering some plants just like I was. Here in Texas, with our summer heat, it's what many of us find ourselves doing in the evening whether we want to or not.

Except Daniel. He and his sister had gotten bored with their yard, and had decided to visit mine. A thick swath of mondo grass runs along the line where our yards meet, so Daniel and his two-year-old sister, Charlotte were kicking their short legs high with each step to navigate the terrain.

"HAAA!" Charlotte yelled, having already mastered her Texas twang, but not the accompanying southern lilt. "WHY DA HAVE A DOG?"

Clueless as to what she had asked, I turned to her brother, who immediately translated "why don't you have a dog?" in the bored intonations of a big brother who always has to tell people what his sister is saying.

What an odd question, I thought! What two-year-old cares about the reasons why people do or don't have a dog?

But I had hardly enough time to answer. Charlotte was already babbling another question, which her brother didn't even understand.

"See?" she asked, changing the subject yet again. Charlotte held out the hem of her pink shirt emblazoned with a cat's face. By now, she'd gotten closer to me and didn't have to yell.

"I'm 'Hello Kitty!'"

"She always dresses like that," her bored brother immediately informed me, as if he gets embarrassed because his baby sister always wears pink Hello Kitty clothes.

Then Daniel spotted the dry, empty shell of a cicada, the flying insect that sheds its outer skin in the summer.

"Look what I found!" he announced triumphantly.

"Oh, it's a cicada's shell," I dutifully observed, assuming he'd already seen plenty of them around his own yard, but perhaps wasn't familiar with the name of its former owner.

Except that Daniel looked up at me quizzically, like I was some sort of idiot. A frown rippled across his lips.

"That's not a shell," he scoffed, almost incredulous that I didn't know the correct terminology. "It's an exoskeleton."

Did I mention that the kid has been attending nature camp all summer?

By that time, Daniel and Charlotte's father had meandered down the street to see if he needed to save me from his children.

But I was laughing out loud at Daniel's vocabulary, completely caught off guard by his mastery of what exoskeletons are. I pointed to the dry, crusty shell in Daniel's hand and asked his father, "Daniel has corrected me. This is an 'exoskeleton,' not a 'shell.'"

"Oh, yeah," their father grimaced. "He's correcting his mom and me all the time!"

I mean, when you were five, did you know what an exoskeleton was?

When he was about three or four, my eldest nephew was riding with my father and me as we drove past a construction site with a large machine parked near the road.

"Look, Andrew! A backhoe!" my father exclaimed from the driver's seat.

My toddler nephew, strapped into his carseat, turned casually to glance out the window, and in the bored, level brogue of a wizened foreman, corrected his grandfather.

"That's not a backhoe," he observed, "That's a 'dozer!"

Which it was, of course.

Mustn't it be some sort of hopeful spark regarding the competence of younger generations when they follow terminology better than we do?

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