I’m a word person. I work as a copywriter during daylight hours, and I write creative prose and essays in my spare time. I have also been told – usually by a supervisor who is trying to find something positive to say in my performance review – that I have excellent verbal communication skills.
In short, I am good with words.
Why is it, then, that I struggle to communicate the most basic things to my own four-year-old kid? Last night, my son was in the bathtub, and he wanted to get out. I have been trying to teach him that he needs to pull up the plug before exiting the tub, allowing the water to drain. For some reason last night, the right words weren’t coming to me.
“Pull the thing! Pull the thing!” I commanded as my son dangled a wet leg over the tub.
“What thing?” he asked.
“The, um, the metal thing that holds the water in,” I stammered. “The plug! The plug!”
He smiled at me and started singing a song he had made up about his favorite colors. Then he wrapped his arms around my legs and got my jeans wet. He loves doing that.
A few minutes later, as I was coaxing him to put on his pajamas, he asked me what the term, “inside-out” means.
“Well,” I said slowly, trying to conjure up the right words, “It means that the inside of your shirt is on the outside, so your shirt looks funny when you wear it.”
He gave me a puzzled look. He was standing naked in front of the TV, clean pajamas and underpants scattered around him on the floor.
“It’s the opposite of the way you should wear your shirt,” I tried again.
“But what does inside-out mean?” he asked.
“You know what it means?” I blurted. “It means you need to put on your pajamas by the time I count to three, because you know what happens when I get to three?”
He looked down. “I go to Time-Out.”
“That’s right,” I said, feeling a little bit more in control.
“But what does inside-out mean? You still haven’t told me.”
I know why I sometimes have trouble communicating with my son. First, when I am around him during the work week, in the early morning or after six o’clock at night, I am often tired and my brain is not functioning at its sharpest. Secondly, shifting gears from interacting with adults all day to breaking a concept down so a small child can understand it takes a lot of thought and patience. Finally, I have never been comfortable issuing directives, which, unfortunately, is a big part of managing life with a four-year-old. Sometimes when I tell him what to do, I talking haltingly and sound unsure of myself. The right words do not always flow naturally off my tongue.
It bothers me that much of the time I spend with my child occurs when I’m tired or, if it’s near the end of the week, exhausted. I also worry that my son sees his father as this tongue-tied guy who stammers to express even the simplest, most rudimentary thoughts. As the week winds down to Thursday and Friday night, I feel like a middle-aged Forrest Gump, a kindhearted but mentally feeble man, struggling just to get his kid out of the bathtub and off to bed. Sometimes, when I’ve turned off the bedroom lights and my child looks up at me, eyes wide open, and asks one of those Troubling Questions, (“Why do people die?” “Why do I have to go to school?” “Why can’t we have a cat?”), I actually wish I was Forrest. He always seemed to know how to tackle the big issues with a little metaphor that sounded simple, but had a more depth to it once you thought about it. “Life is like a box of chocolates,” sounds more profound than “Life isn’t fair,” although they both pretty much mean the same thing.
Hopefully, when my kid reaches the age of 10 or 12 or 25, he and I will able to sit down and have a conversation that doesn’t revolve around finishing his dinner, brushing his teeth, or watching very carefully while I tie his shoes. We’ll sit down and have a real, heartfelt, man-to-man talk (in between whatever programs he has queued up on Netflix, of course). Then, my son will realize how thoughtful, wise and articulate his dad really is.
That’s the hope, anyway.