Any time children are partially awake and conscious, you can be fairly certain they are recording everything you say and do, even if they seem to be totally occupied with whatever fun, possibly noisy toy currently in hand.
If you have an infant or are around toddlers or any young children, it’s a good time to reprogram your vocab to G-rated and fine-tune your shut-up filter, because everything you say (and do) can and likely will be repeated generally at the most inopportune time. Any words shouted or said with any sort of extra emotion will be the most likely candidates for new vocabulary acquisition.
That’s why so many kids learn “NO!” very early on, because they hear it all the time. “Up” and “down” are two other ones children tend to learn very early. Seinfeld does a great bit where he talks about this phenomenon.
Many Occasions for Humility
There’s no way around it, really; whatever you say can and will be used against you. It provides many occasions for humility (in case being peed, pooped, spit-up, thrown-up, and sneezed on hasn’t produced a sufficient amount of that in your life, yet.)
Having spent a lot of time working with and caring for children of a variety of ages, I’ve gotten pretty darn good about keeping exclamations—even in the midst of an emergency or crisis—G-rated around little people. I figure I’ve already had enough explaining to do when I have a little one shouting things like: “Where my ho’?” on the playground. I did actually have this happen to me and quickly rephrased the question for the little tike so as not to be shunned from the church playground forever: “You mean: Where’s my gardening tool?”
He had been helping his parents working in the garden recently, and there was a plastic hoe and other gardening tools in the sandbox in that playground area, but that’s certainly not what it must have sounded like to the other mommies and nannies at the playground that day.
I’m all for encouraging kids to learn the proper names for things, but only when it doesn’t get us kicked out of the sandbox. I’m sure it didn’t help a whole lot that when a car would drive by with really loud rap music playing that the same little one would stop whatever he was doing on the playground and start his bounce dancing.
Sometimes it’s hard not to laugh when kids come out with something you know they must have heard at home that couldn’t possibly have been intended to be repeated anywhere. ever. I’ll admit I laughed hysterically when I was reading a book by Anne Lamott in which she talks about how she came to the realization that she and her son had gotten in the habit of using some words that were inappropriate. I can’t in good conscience quote exactly what either of them said (as it’s not G-rated), but if you’d like to read it directly (and I think you’ll want to), you can find that particular excerpt of Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.
They will happen all of the time anyway, because kids fill in the words that they think you said or make up their own when recounting a story. Case in point, just this morning we had the following exchange:
“Dad is a she,” Sunshine said.
“Your dad is a he. Your mom is a she,” I replied.
“My mom is not a sheep!” she said emphatically with more than a little attitude working.
I explained that I did not call her mom a sheep, but I’m not sure if that really sank in, so I informed her mother of the conversation because I knew she’d be amused and also in case later during dinner or bedtime she recounted to her mom what she thought I’d said.
We had quite a few mishaps when my youngest sister, who is 11 years younger than I am, would repeat and/or mess up something one of us had said and announce it to family, friends, guests, etc. at the most awkward times. Some of the mix-ups were just plain hilarious.
Once my cousin had been telling us a story about how she'd been visiting UC Berkeley and had seen two women walking around holding hands wearing nothing but tie-dyed socks. She added that she didn't think the two of them had ever seen a razor. Most of this went right over my youngest sister's head. Later when my sister was retelling the story to someone, I heard her say that “the two women looked liked they'd never seen a raisin.” Then she added, "I don't know how she could tell that, though."
As those who know me are already aware, I absolutely love spending time with little ones. It isn’t long before I go into “running commentary” mode where, for purposes of learning and language acquisition, I describe everything around us and all the things we’re doing as we go.
I did this so often on walks with “my little guys” that they got to the point when they’d know what was coming next and get excited and tell me before I had a chance to say a word: fire station, library, church with bells that ring and that at noon and 6pm play two songs…
I’m glad to know I haven’t lost this valuable time-with-toddlers instinct from my earlier days as a nanny. Apparently my “running commentary” switch still works. That being said I don’t need it or use it quite as much when there’s also a preschooler in the house, because her commentary is pretty much always running. And by that I mean, pretty much whenever she’s awake her mouth is running, which can be as amusing and entertaining as it can be exhausting and annoying when it goes on for hours.
In short, it’s easier to tone it down a tad when little ones are in earshot, so you are less likely to find yourself explaining to a concerned adult how it is that your child knows certain words, phrases, or exclamations.