We're All Damaged

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Possessive Tense

Adults often make the mistake of over analyzing a child’s ramblings and trying to eke out hidden shreds of wisdom.  But not me.  I like kids, particularly cute ones, but I’m rarely floored by what they have to say.  I’ve never been at a dinner party and had the mashed potato-covered toddler in the Superman onesie teach me something I didn’t know about how the world works.

“You know, that’s a good point,” I’ve never said to a toddler.  “Maybe a two-party approach really is the most effective political system possible.”

Take my daughter for instance. So far, she’s yet to prove herself as a linguist.  For example, in a crowded airport lounge the other day, just as the guy with the microphone was about to start herding people into lines, Caroline grabbed the crotch of her little jeans and said loudly, “A poo-poo?”

Note the question mark.  We’re still working on the difference between poo-poo and pee-pee, which often leads to this line of questioning, usually in front of a bunch of people I don’t know. Also note the "A."  It’s never just “poo-poo.”  It’s always “a poo-poo,” as if she’s offering me something. 

A glass of water, perhaps?  A piece of sugarless gum?  A poo-poo?

So, as you can imagine, I was pretty surprised this past weekend when I heard our friends’ two-year-old daughter utter the most emotionally sophisticated sentence I’ve heard in years.  We were in our friends' living room having drinks while the little ones toddled around playing with toys and knocking things over.  My daughter found a talking Elmo doll and was playing with it intently.  When our friends’ daughter saw this, she burst instantly into tears and screamed: “Give me have that!”  And then she snatched Elmo from my daughter’s hands and ran out of the room.   

“Did she just say ‘Give me have that’?” I asked.  Indeed she had.  Apparently she’s going through a possessive stage.

When their daughter returned a few minutes later, she discovered that Caroline was now playing with a tray of little plastic cupcakes. “Give me have that!” she repeated, and the whole scene played itself out all over again…and again…and again.

I’ve been thinking about that sentence, and repeating it incessantly, for four straight days now, and I’ve realized that the reason it’s so powerful is that it’s a hauntingly accurate way of communicating an emotion that each of us—toddler or otherwise—experiences virtually every day.   We want to be polite, and so society forces us to say: “Excuse me, could I have that please? I mean, if you're not using it, and it's not too much trouble.”  But what we really want to be saying is, well… “Give me have that!”

And so next time you see someone with something that you want—a chocolate chip cookie, a cool watch, a BMW, a two-story colonial home with shutters and a wraparound deck—try telling that person what you’re really thinking for a change.  From what I witnessed this weekend, it’s actually pretty effective. 



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