On being a toddler- The Wonder of Curiosity

On being a toddler- The Wonder of Curiosity, The Power of Language.

As many know, we have had the tremendous fortune of being able to visit our son and his wife, and our granddaughter Evie, in Hong Kong for most of October.

Last time we had some extended time together, Evie was about 9 months old and inspired some thoughts on infancy and grandparenting that I shared.  Now she is about 15 months old, and the changes and time have once again inspired some thoughts.

I think every age of life is infinitely fascinating.  Our whole lives we are filled with potentials and possibilities, and at each stage of life these potential vary.

For a very long time I have found the age of 15 months fascinating for being on the verge of so many momentous changes that open up great vistas.  We saw all this in full view during our visit with Evie who turned 15 months while we were there.

I think the most evocative property of being 15 months old is that by this age most toddlers have achieved a remarkably good understanding of language, even though their ability to formulate and speak thoughts is very limited.   This is likely the only time in any of our lives when we know the words of our mother language, but cannot yet really speak it.  At 4 months of age, very few infants if any know any words in their native language.  By 3 years of age, nearly ever child not only understands their first language, but speaks it.  Even by 18 months of age, their is so much more ability to state intention.  This makes 15 months a very tender and powerful moment in life.  It is the peak of potential, when so many ideas are coming into the young child's mind, but not yet expressible in full sentences and paragraphs.   It is a time when you aren't really sure what the child is thinking, but are repeatedly surprised to find how much is going in in there.

For us that meant many wonderful hours singing nursery songs and reading many books to 15 month old Evie.   For every new book or nursery song, Evie would seem to be attending, she would stop moving around, look intently, be in the moment, but who could tell what and how much actually being understood?  Then about 1 or 2 repetitions later, sometimes during the first introduction, she would say a word or form a hand gesture exactly on the point of the song or book, at just the right time.  We loved her saying so sweetly, "No, no, no, no" when we sang or read what the doctor said about no more monkeys jumping on the bed.  Or forming her hands into a horn when singing about little boy Blue blowing his horn.

She was completely unable to read back any of her books to us, or repeat any songs sung to her, and only barely starting to make single words anyway, but these well-timed words or gestures signaled that she was understanding the point of the story in the song or book and at the time it was said.

We also saw that a whole world of preferences and styles was appearing.  As Evie was on the brink of using words to express thoughts, her thoughts were becoming more complex, and on the verge of creating stories.

This is the really exciting part of this age- it dramatizes how much of our lives are the expression of stories.  Our understanding of stories we experience, and our creating our own stories for others to experience.

To a large degree, it is the ability to craft stories and to join them to each other's that makes us human.  That ability sits ready to emerge from birth onwards, but to see it coming together in the second year of life, and to see the full power of being human activate and take hold is so powerful.

We also saw the power of blocks of thought.  Evie had a set of a dozen or so playful narratives that she could activate at any time- pretending to answer a phone, pretending to take her dolls on  a walk, caring for her dolls and stuffed animals, and many other stories that we could not know exactly what they meant.  In each instance, when a story was activated, she went through the same motions, almost exactly.  We were watching her create set pieces, each very complex, that could be expanded or connected in time to create complex narrative behaviors.   We fully grown adults use the power of established narratives all the time.  It's how we get through much of our days, repeating functions like buying groceries, driving to work, doing house chores, even much of our social conversing and work.

Putting it all together, being with Evie this visit brought to home the big difference between being a baby and a child.  It's mostly language, but also walking.   When we are born, not just unable to walk or talk, but unable to imagine doing either, we are unable to craft stories that create new realities on the world, the reality of who we are.   Once we walk, and in particular, talk, we begin to present our stories to the world, and learn from other stories.  It is the emergence of being able to create and respond to stories that really marks the end of infancy and the beginning of the childhood.

It was beyond wonderful to spend so much time with our son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter for the last 3 weeks.  Many thanks to all the families in the practice for their support and interest.  I look forward to being back in the office this week.

To your health,
Dr. Lavin

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