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How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Neighbor's Kid
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Some of the neighbors think my son is a little slow. I've seen their tolerant smiles as they stage their own toddler shows for the entertainment of other interested mothers. You know the type - - 'what is your name?' 'My name is Paul.' 'What is this?' 'An isosceles triangle.' These little Einsteins get a lot of practice at showmanship because their mothers run them through their lessons with the persistence of a smiling drill sergeant.

Let me illustrate. Ten-month-old Harold is playing with a Playskool xylophone, pounding with the reckless joy typical of the far side of the generation gap. Harold's mother, vying for the gold cup in the neighborhood ten-month-old category, interrupts to say, "Harold can wave bye-bye, can't you Harold." Sure enough, Harold has heard his cue. His right hand bobs up and down, still holding the xylophone stick.

I smile and exclaim appropriately about his cleverness. The lesson, however, has been lost on my son Johnny, also ten-months-old, who has no intention of waving bye-bye until he leaves for school. Johnny, however, has taken advantage of this opportunity to gain control of the xylophone.

My failure as a motivational mother is quite evident. By the time Johnny learned to crawl on his hands and knees instead of his toes, the Pediatricians' Typical Child was walking. When Johnny learned to walk, half the neighborhood kids of his age could sing "Jingle Bells."

Harold didn't stop with waving bye-bye. At two he could play "Joy to the World" on a Playskool xylophone and sing "I'm a Little Teapot" with gestures. Harold's mother wastes not a moment in informing me that the little one's rate of development has not flagged.

For her to come right out and tell me that her child is smarter than mine would be very unsportsmanlike and against the rules of the Competition. Harold must be made to illustrate his superiority by himself - - spontaneously in the best case scenario. Optimally, he would suddenly interrupt his play and stand, unbidden, for a rendition of "Teensy Weensy Spider." As the spontaneity would be unlikely even for Harold, his mother may have to give him a little encouragement, like absentmindedly humming a few bars under her breath.

But now I no longer have to sit anxiously by, watching Harold do his intellectual thing while Johnny is chasing the cat with an educational toy. Now I can enjoy Harold's songs and cute sayings, for I have discovered Johnny's special genius - - a skill Harold's mother never even dreamed of. My son, at the age of two, has achieved what it usually takes whole societies hundreds of years to do. He has created a brand new language!!

While Johnny's language does bear a trace of relationship with the English language, he strives diligently to keep it as mysterious as possible, realizing perhaps that this obscurity may save him from the humiliation of "Teensy Weensy Spider."

Sometimes hours of painstaking work is required to develop a single word. He murmurs and mumbles, trying various pronunciations, turning it this way and that until he finally comes up with the perfect word. "Khady!" he calls out, triumphantly holding aloft the sunglasses he has been studying. And "khady" it is, outsiders' objections notwithstanding.

At first, not yet recognizing this unusual skill that I was blessed with nurturing, I tried reasoning with my young Webster. Yet he holds his ground with admirable tenacity. It is his word, and he is convinced that it is just as good a name for an object as the old, worn out word thought up by someone else hundreds of years ago.

My objection that language should afford communication did not interest him. It is his nose, and if he wants to refer to it as "kum" then the rest of us, shackled by outmoded traditions, can use his language or do without communication.

And by some insidious brainwashing he is succeeding, I find myself washing his "boyo," agreeing that his "wheeo is bokey" and waving to the "doo doo ba." I have become fairly fluent and able to act as his interpreter to the other side of the language barrier,. When the delivery man looked stupified by a string of unfamiliar words, I was able to reassure the man that he had left his truck outside.

Don't get the idea that Johnny couldn't speak English if he wanted to. There have always been some of 'our' words that he has found useful - - particularly the word "no." But he simply prefers his colorful new words to the grey worn words that the rest of us are in the habit of using.

The neighbors think he's cute if a little slow. They are constantly reassuring me that someday soon Johnny will learn to talk. I hear many stories about someone's sister's boy who didn't talk until he was seven.

Whatever The Establishment thinks, Johnny has little difficulty making himself understood by his peers. Let Harold thoughtlessly attempt to cop the toy dump truck during a sandbox session, and one menacing "tobby!" uttered with volume and conviction brings him around to Johnny's point of view. No council of tricycles convenes without Johnny's "boder," and the call of "bubby" brings the neighborhood dogs running to him enthusiastically.

Harold's mother, of course, doesn't recognize Johnny's genius for what it is. She still looks at me pityingly when Johnny bursts into babble. She still assumes I am impressed and embarrassed when Harold reels off a stanza or two of "Little Boy Blue." I don't mind. Now I just imagine Johnny addressing a convention of the worlds' great linguists while Harold sits in the back row muttering about the sheep in the meadow and the cows in the corn.

There is no need to try to explain all of this to Harold's mother. She probably wouldn't understand anyway, and if she did it would only make her feel bad. So I'll just let her enjoy her nice but ordinary boy, since I know that someday everyone will realize that my Johnny is smarter than her Harold.


Street Talk

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