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“Newspeak” for Kids

"Forbidden", Uruguay, January 2015
“Forbidden”, Uruguay, January 2015

On a cold and snowy day of December, I probably scarred a toddler for life.

“Oh no! Doing what?”

“Using… the negative form. And an exclamation point.”

“You did not!”

Yes, I did.

Background. I was tagging along with Mark at daycare #2 (now bankrupt, like daycare #1), and we were in the hallway. Suddenly, I saw a little one bolting out of a classroom and speeding toward us like an overexcited puppy—a bathroom emergency, I suspected. However, no matter how badly he needed to pee, I felt the need to warn him.

“Oh oh… Don’t run!” I said. “The floor is slippery! You’re going to fall!”

The toddler laughed and stopped a few inches from the bathroom door. Phew.

Just as I was about to add sometime like “need help?”, one of the daycare centre staff members called after me.

“Just so you know… we use positive language here. Like, we don’t say ‘don’t run!’, we say ‘walk slowly!’”

For a second, I thought she was joking. Plus, didn’t she just used the negative form?

She was not kidding.

I should have expected this from a place where staff members called all kids “friends”. “Come on friends, bathroom time!” “Friends, we are now reading a story!” “Friends, let’s draw!”

I know it was probably meant to be, well, friendly, but I found it awkward. “Friend” implies a closeness, a strong bond. You are not “friend” with the teacher, you don’t have to be “friend” with all the kids. Even toddlers know that. Pretending otherwise is just silly.

Or maybe I’m just a cynical grown-up.

Yet, I noticed “newspeak” for kids is apparently a trend and guess what—I’m against it.

Editing is a big part of my job. Give me a document, in English or in French, and I will immediately turn the track change mode on and delete, move, tweak and rephrase until the message is clear. Brochures, handbooks, ads or corporate messaging don’t need to be fancy. They have to convey the message clearly and quickly. If you want to play with words and show off with figurative language, write a novel or a blog. I’m not working on the next great Canadian masterpiece. I’m working on delivering the message crafted by executives, a marketing department or a communication service.

And I apply the same rule when dealing with Mark—delivering a clear message, that is.

As his language skills are improving, we are communicating better. Yet we are not ready to argue over politics yet. If I want to be understood, I need to be clear.

Here is a funny example. One day, in Santiago, I took Mark to the bathroom at Starbucks to clean up a “oh oh… mess, MESS!” ice cream disaster on his shirt. After washing clothes, his face and his hair (!), I decided I may as well go pee. This was a single unisex bathroom and I wasn’t comfortable letting him wait outside the door, in the café.

“Okay Mark, mommy needs to pee. Privacy, please. Turn around.”

I pull my pants down and noticed that Mark, in the corner of the room, was indeed turning around, i.e. spinning round and round carefully, a puzzled look on his face.

I was laughing so hard I didn’t have the heart to correct him.

This is what happens when you’re being unknowingly ambiguous with kids—they take what you say literally.

I was the same when I first learned English. I focused on keywords in fast-spoken sentences, and I didn’t get figurative language or slang. For instance, I could never understand being referred to as “you guys” (“but I’m a woman!”), and phrases like “working it out” or “being up to something” puzzled me.

With Mark, I try to focus on keywords, short sentences and words he understands. I don’t use baby talk, but I use words he knows. For instance, “daddy is working” is a better explanation than “daddy went to the post office” because Mark probably doesn’t know what the post office is.

And I’m sorry, but I find that saying “don’t run” is more efficient than “walk”, and “no mess please” is better understood than “eat properly”.

There is a poster at Mark’s new daycare that says “I keep my hands to myself.” It took me a few days to understand that it means “don’t beat the shit out of each other”. Could it be less clear? Seriously! I could, I’d edit it and write “no pushing, no hitting. Share, laugh and have fun.”

I’m always clear with Mark. He knows what he can do and cannot do. He knows when he does a good job and he glows when we praise him. He also bows his head when I call him on his behaviour. And for the record, I don’t shout or scream, I use my “buddy, I’m not kidding” tone—it’s usually enough.

What next? Should we put “please brake” on stop signs because a generation of kids grew up never hearing the negative form or a command?

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