This morning, Gorilla Girl wanted her Cheerios in a bag, not a bowl (dry, no milk). As I was distractedly trying to get myself ready for work, I was also attempting to pour her Cheerios from the bowl into a bag, and missed entirely. Cheerios tumbled all over the floor, into my backpack, and onto my computer (thankfully, sans milk).
Just as I was about to mutter, “Oh, shit” Monkey Man shouted it for me, in a sweet and silly tone.
Gorilla Girl and Monkey Man giggled on cue, as if they knew the impact of the word. Gorilla Girl sing-songed the phrase a couple of times, laughing all the while.
At first, I wondered how they learned such things, but it was only a fleeting thought, since I know the answer.
Coincidentally, my mom diligently recorded that my first word was, “Shit.” I can’t recall the context of that utterance, so I’ll have to check the baby book for the full story.
I am not really one to censor my speech, but I have been more careful lately, especially since Ed warns me frequently that Gorilla Girl and Monkey Man will parrot my words.
When toddlers utter such phrases, in the right context, it is funny. The idea that toddlers know the right context for such phrases is what intrigues me. Gorilla Girl and Monkey Man have not used that phrase before, and Monkey Man knew immediately and instinctively that this moment was the right one.
Language choices are important things to learn, and this morning Monkey Man showed that he understands that expletives occur when mistakes are made. Knowing when it is okay to use such phrases is an important lesson to learn.
Code switching is how I explain it my 7th graders. They do it, sometimes less well, in school and at home, in the locker room and on the playing fields or in their friends’ basements. Our expectations about how we use language to communicate shifts as the environment changes. Kids who curse in school may not use such words in their homes. Some kids might be allowed to use such language at home but find it hard to censor themselves at school. The messages from families are not consistent. Despite the inconsistency, there are cultural expectations that we all adhere to, and children learn them quickly.
Today during meeting time at nursery school, I hope that Gorilla Girl and Monkey Man will know enough not to share the story of this morning’s Cheerio spill and Monkey Man’s response. However, if they do tell the story, it will give their teacher a moment to teach about code switching, at the nursery school level. If they don’t tell the story, or use the word, today, then maybe they already learned the code switching lesson, and all before breakfast!
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