In August, I began writing a regular column for the Statesboro Herald’s “Moments” magazine. Emphasis on the “mom” in “Moments.” As the official “Dad” columnist, I named my space “Broments,” and made a game attempt at sounding cool, wise, paternal and bewildered all at once. This is the first column that appeared in “Moments.”
These conversations take place in my house:
“Atticus, say ‘Momma.’”
“Say ‘bye bye.’”
The complexities of human language—filled with higher brain function, precise muscular and respiratory control; hinging on the ability to codify objects, actions and concepts into a series of show-offy bird calls—crumble in the face of an obstinate 18-month-old fixated on a Muppet.
For the next hour, any request for a specific word is likely to result in the stock response: “Elmo.” One might as well ask a politician a question and expect a straight answer.
In a nutshell, this is parenthood. But let’s not have this column descend into gross generalizations. Someone in this family has to display a command of language and semantics.
Compared to many of my friends’ kids, Atticus is lagging behind in the quest to pick up speech. Of course, most of my friends’ kids are much older than 18 months. Some of them are in college. Still, I can’t help but wondering if it is really okay for Atticus to consistently use “buh” in place of “thank you.”
“’Thank you’ has two syllables, Atticus.”
True story: my son’s name for my mother is expressed by clicking the tongue on the roof of the mouth. He may as well be the guy with the Coke bottle from The Gods Must Be Crazy. (I’ll wait while everyone under 30 runs to IMDB to look up The Gods Must Be Crazy and everyone over 60 runs to Google to find out what IMDB is.)
Thanks for coming back.
I waited almost 40 years before becoming a father. In the interim, I sometimes imagined how my progeny might express itself. Honestly, I expected something between a chess-playing Super Baby and one of those toddlers the people at the 911 call center know by name.
It’s the Garner boy again, they’d say. He’s got hostages and is demanding diapers and an audience with the lady from “Baby Signing Time.”
More telling, I imagined myself the wise and hip father, directing the massive force of will contained in my obviously exceptional offspring with a mix of informed wisdom and folksy, from-the-heart panaceas for any and all situations. Ward Cleaver, if you will, standing with the police, a pipe clamped in my teeth, shaking my head and saying “boys will be boys.”
Instead, the 19,833rd utterance of “Elmo,” sends me into a parental panic, even though I can clearly hear him practicing words like airplane and parasaurolophus when he doesn’t think anyone can hear him.
Even the simple act of just imagining my son confronted by a developmental hurdle sends my mind scurrying to the dark corners of possibility. Each new scenario traipses down a dark path, ending, at best, with Rain Man. I did it when he didn’t smile at the earliest window outlined in “the books.” I repeated my neuroses as the boy took his first steps, then decided crawling was just more efficient for the next three weeks. My son is a developmental glacier.
I try not to ignore how happy he seems to be, how skilled he is with tasks of manual dexterity, how he loves the water and swims like a champ. I fail. I fret the one thing he’s not doing on schedule.
“By the time you were his age,” my grandmother offers, “we had already taught you how to stop saying [incredibly inappropriate swear deleted].” Unwittingly, she has reminded me of the dangers of a too-verbal toddler.
Perhaps the reticence to cultivate more vocabulary and string together words and syllables into sentences bears some watching. Or perhaps the boy is just on his own time table. These things, parenthood has taught me, have a way of resolving themselves. And if it takes a little outside help to do the job, there’s nothing wrong with that, either.
As a dad, I just have to learn the words “patience” and “vigilance.”
They’re both pronounced, “Elmo.”
In case you’re wondering. Four months later, Atticus is still woefully short on vocabulary. He still uses “buh” for “thank you.” But he has been seen by speech therapists, who assure us his comprehension and hearing are just fine. He understands every word we say. Any day now, we expect his burgeoning vocabulary to evolve into full-blown soliloquies.
Probably soliloquies about Elmo.