For the longest time my oldest son, now age 7, was obsessed with the word “BAWK.” The sound a chicken makes. “BAWK.” He thought it was the silliest, and therefore best, answer to any of my questions.
Did you wash your hands? BAWK.
What did your teacher say about your homework assignment? BAWK.
Of course, he was encouraged in this by his little brother, age 5, who would break down in the contagious, bellyaching laughs of the young every time BAWK was used. Most of our car conversations went–
Me: “What did you learn at school today?”
Oldest son: “BAWK.”
Youngest son: hysterical fit of laughter
As a mom who is a writer and longtime passionate lover of language, I felt guilt.
As the “BAWK” echoed in the car, I also felt fear.
We have read every Dr Seuss book ever written, The Lorax so many times I have it memorized, and countless Shel Silverstein’s. I even repeatedly performed their favorite, the wildly depressing The Giving Tree, in the hope they would learn to feel the ebb and flow, rise and fall of the power of a perfectly chosen word.
But then, out of the plethora of the English words I read lovingly to their tiny ears, the one they adopted as the best word ever was the undescriptive “BAWK.” Where did I go wrong?!
Oh, to be sure, I noticed a few remarkable language moments over the years, where I felt the tingly sensation of the impactful word or a perfected consonant rendered in my conversations with my sons. Times when they were exploring new words, phrases and turns of the English language.
For example, one day in frustration at a misguided road trip I announced that we were on a wild goose chase. My oldest’s eyes grew wide, as he gasped, “a GOOSE is chasing us?!”
And when the neighbors’ pulled their professional dragster cars out of the trailers to spit shine them to spectacular glistening colors, my engine-obsessed younger son yelled enthusiastically, “MOM! The hamsters are out!”
When we crossed the Intracoastal on our way to the beach, my oldest observed,” There are so many ya-cht-s today,” instead of “yachts.”
In those moments, I see them rounding their perfect little tongues around vowels I love so much.
I can’t quantify how much my personal zeal of the power of language effects, or affects, them, but at times I feel powerless in the battle to teach them more than “duh” and “no doi” to communicate. One of my sons filled out a school worksheet the other day. A fill-in-the-blank read, “My mom always says ___” and his answer was, ”Hurry up.” That is my language legacy as a parent? “Hurry up?!”
But then, mosquito-bitten after sitting under fluorescent lights to watch my oldest son’s little league team lose dismally again, we held hands while walking off the field. He turned to me with big eyes and said in a whisper full of emotion, “Mom, I am so desperate for a hit.”
And in that moment I knew I was, somehow and slowly and perhaps in spite of myself, giving words to my kids.
Desperate. It was the perfect word to describe the feelings in his 7-year-old heart. Desperate. It made me understand him with every part of my emotional rainbow.
My English-major mom soul grew three sizes. I squeezed him hard and followed up with the obligatory pep talk. When I was done shoring up his confidence, he grinned up at me, dropped my hand, and sprinted off.
I heard him yell gleefully, as he faded further into the dark, “BAWWWWK.”