One day, I was playing with a child when I exclaimed “Uffda!” (I know…showing my true Minnesotan nature here). The child looked at me, both puzzled and surprised, and very curiously asked “What’s uffda?” I thought, how can I possibly describe what uffda means to a two year old, I can’t even describe it to an adult! (My husband is from Chicago and was also confused about “uffda” at first). This moment was the perfect reminder of how children develop language and an understanding of meaning: by experiencing it.
Language develops as children engage in reciprocal, linguistic interactions with others. More importantly, within those interactions the child must experience the word paired with its meaning. This is because the experience comes with emotion, and that emotion becomes the foundation for the child’s understanding of the word’s meaning. Think about it: an “uffda” moment has a certain feeling behind it (if you’re a Minnesotan, hopefully you know what I mean) and it is that feeling that helps you understand the meaning of the word “uffda.”
When children encounter a new experience or challenge, it is the perfect time to support the development of language and meaning. However, all too often, adults charge in to rescue the child from the possible emotional turmoil that might ensue during the experience. But I am here to tell you: resist the temptation to be a hero. Instead, allow your child to go through whatever is happening (with your support) and to experience the meaning of the language used in that moment. Here’s an example: Imagine your child sits down to put on a pair of boots that you know are too small for him. What do you do? Do you tell him they’re too small and prevent him from trying them on? Or do you allow the child to experience “too small” by giving him time and space to attempt to put the boots on? If you let him try, he may end up frustrated or disappointed, maybe there will even be some tears, and that is ok. He is on his way to a better understanding of language and meaning. Plus, this is a great moment to offer authentic empathy and work on emotional regulation.
Here’s another one of my favorite examples: A child invited me to color with her and gave me a crayon and a piece of paper. I enthusiastically accepted the invitation and told her that I needed something hard to color on top of and asked if she could find something for me. The girl thought for a bit and went searching (and thinking). The first item she brought me was a ball. I explained to her that yes, it was hard but I also needed the object to be flat. Next she brought a pillow. Yes it was flat, but soft. Then she found a book. Yes! This is hard and flat! Perfect! We celebrated her success and enjoyed coloring together. Each time the girl went to find something I could see the wheels turning. Each time I explained why the item would not work, I could see the wheels turning. She was experiencing each object and the meaning of the words that describe them. This was wonderful. Simply telling her what to bring me (a book, hard and flat) would have robbed her of not only experiencing meaning, but of experiencing the feeling of being successful.
So, the next time your child encounters a new experience or challenge, resist the temptation to charge in and rescue him or her. Allow your child to struggle a bit and experience meaning, not just words. Further, when you and your child experience a joyful or celebratory moment together, don’t rush through this moment. Sit with the wonderfulness and the joy, not only to build meaning, but to experience those emotions with each other.