Vocabulary: Using Big Words With Kids

Two-year-old Anton still feels like my baby. So, it always surprises me when he busts out bigger words like “enormous” or “frustrated” or (the other day when we were making pancakes), “Can me see the whisk?” Children soak up everything. So, I loved what Jenny Rosenstrach of Dinner: A Love Story (and the companion cookbook) had to say…

When Phoebe was in her “Threes” program at nursery school one of the first things she learned about was the weather. The kids would all take turns affixing smiley-face suns or frowny-face storm clouds onto a big poster titled “What’s the Weather Today?” She started asking us to describe the sky outside whenever we’d leave the house. “Sunny, Mommy?” “Cloudy, Mommy?” Once, when she asked me this question, the sky happened to be so dark and foreboding that I found myself struggling to use the word cloudy. (This is probably the only time being an editor by trade conflicted with the day to day of motherhood.) It wasn’t the right word to describe it, but it was the only word in her weather vocabulary. I hesitated. I briefly contemplated saying “really cloudy,” but that wasn’t right either.

“Ominous,” I finally said. “The sky looks ominous.”
“What does that mean, Mommy?”
“It means the sky looks kind of dark and scary.”
“Oh. You’re right. The sky is dark and scary. It is ominous.”

From then on, whenever the sky looked this way she would correctly identify it as “ominous,” much to the shock and delight of any grown-up who was around to hear.

I had an epiphany about parenting around this moment, an epiphany that most moms and dads probably have way before their child turns three: Kids are game for anything. It’s the grown-ups who have the harder time switching things up, letting go of a routine, trying something bigger and better.

Just because the world of institutionalized learning tells kids they need to know the words sunny, cloudy and windy doesn’t mean they are not capable of also learning the words ominous, blustery and scorching. In fact, to them, there really isn’t any difference between the words cloudy and ominous. Words are just combination of sounds. It’s the grown-ups who inject the shroud of grown-up-ness around “big words” by not using those words. It’s not the kids who think they can’t handle them.

Great reminder, right?

Her words made me think of a quote I had seen on a bookstore window years ago: “Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick and generally congenial readers on earth… Children are game for anything. I throw them hard words and they backhand them across the net.” — E. B. White

Thoughts? Do you use big words around your kids? Have they been using any funny words these days? And just for fun, here’s a favorite video of Toby describing an Indian dinner when he had just turned three. :)

P.S. How to get your kids to talk at dinner, and trying out slow parenting.