Say What?

Dear Dr. Dad:
I have lost all communication with my children. I speak slowly and try to be as simple and precise as possible, but nothing sinks in. When they don't ignore me altogether, they just stare at me as if I were yammering in Swahili, then run off to do whatever they please. What's the problem? It's driving me absolutely insane! HELP!

Shirley W.
Elko, Nevada

Dear Shirley:
I'd love to answer your question, but my mind wandered and I have no idea what your question was.

Just joshing, Shirl. The fact is, your dilemma is quite common. Many parents are flakier than a box of Wheaties. Don't worry about it. Insanity is merely your body's natural way of telling you to get your tubes tied as soon as possible. What are you doing over lunch?

In regard to your inter-family communications breakdown, children do not speak the same language as adults. They share a similar vocabulary, to be sure, but the definitions are entirely different--as you can see by this excerpt from my new book, Glossary of Children's Words and Phrases (Permanent Press, $24.95).

Key Adult Phrases

"No." Ask Mom. If she says "no," too, go for it.

"I said NO." Go for it.

"Hey! Are you deaf or what? I said NO!!!" Go for it.

"I'm telling you for the last time. NO!!!" Go for it.

"Do you want a spanking?" You've got one more shot. Make the best of it. (At this point, most children will go for the big guns: "Mommy and Daddy, I love you." In parent-speak, this means, "No, I do not want a spanking.")

"Come here RIGHT NOW, young man!" Run to your room, lock the door and scream, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry." (Which translates roughly as, "Your honor, I have chosen to act as my own attorney in this matter, and I would now like to enter a plea of temporary insanity.")

"Look at me when I'm talking to you." Stare into space and fiddle with your zipper.

"I said LOOK AT ME!" Look at me, but think of something else while fiddling with your zipper.

"What did I just say?" A trick question with no correct answer. Savvy kids will answer with "I don't know," the safest reply to any question that does not involve a reward.

"Don't you ever, EVER do that again!" Gibberish.

"Who broke this/spilled this/used this to dig holes in the lawn?" Anyone up for a long, lingering round of hide-and-seek?

"I'm just going to read you one bedtime story and that's it!" Three more stories, minimum. And maybe a little wrestling before Mom comes in and starts yelling at us.

"Okay, but don't make a mess." Feel free to upend as many crates of toys as you like until we can no longer locate the couch.

"Put all this stuff away." Pick up one object, start to put it away, then dump the remaining contents of your toy box in the middle of the room and play interplanetary war.

Key children's phrases

"Dad, can you help me?" If you want this mess cleaned up so badly, Bozo, grab a shovel and be my guest.

"Can I play with your [item he's been told never to touch under any circumstances]." A test to see if the household rules have loosened up since the last test three minutes ago.

"Why?" A meaningless word that's fun to say over and over and over until Mom and Dad start grinding their teeth. At which point, they will say "Because I said so." Which really means, "Son, you've got me on logic if nothing else."

"Did you bring me a surprise?" If you've come home empty-handed again, I'm afraid I'll have to take my affection elsewhere.

Then there are those wonderful moments when a parent gets to announce it's "Time to wash up for dinner." Which the offspring will interpret as, "Son, you will never get the chance to play with your friends ever again, and you'll die sad and all alone, and you'll have your mother and me to thank for it." And continue with:

"I don't WANNA eat! I wanna play!" A last-minute tactic that never works, but one day it might, so there's no reason to stop trying.

I'm full. Zucchini again? This is the parent's cue to say, "Son, you will eat everything that's put in front of you." To Son, this indicates, "Son, you will eat everything that's put in front of you . . . or you may hide as much of it as you can under your potato skin and pray that your parents are suddenly stricken by a debilitating brain disease.

"I don't like this stuff." A sentence that is required by law to be constantly repeated through all dinner courses except dessert.

"Mom, what's for dessert?" Mom, how well-behaved do I have to be while hiding this stuff under my potato skin?

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Michael Burkett