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     Volume 6 Issue 45 | November 23, 2007 |

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Food for Thought

Communication Challenges

Farah Ghuznavi

"Who needs the Wild West -- stick with me, kids, and I'll protect you from the Royal Bengal Tiger!"

However much adults may wish to delude themselves about their superior language and communication skills, most children have ways of getting their messages across quite effectively. Indeed, I have the scars all over my psyche to prove it! For example, I have yet to recover from the time my six-year-old cousin Sam looked at me consideringly, and asked "Why do you have such a funny face? Your face is flat!" Given that I was a somewhat insecure teenager at the time, it was hard to come back with a sufficiently clever retort, particularly one that would both be understood and succeed in putting a cheeky six-year-old in her place. My humiliation was completed by the fact that I knew I would receive little sympathy if I confessed that I couldn't deal with smartass comments from someone so much younger than me!

Sometimes, even when the specific language used by a child is ambiguous, their meaning can be crystal clear. When my niece Sian was little, she described anything she didn't want to eat as "too jhal" (hot or spicy), in her case pronouncing it as "ja-a-a-al" - no doubt drawn out for emphasis! Basically, she had realised that she would not be required to eat anything that she could persuade the adults was actually too spicy, so this opened up a whole new world of possibilities. The actual flavour of the dish concerned had little to do with Sian's categorisation, whether it was sweet, savoury or sour - and boiled vegetables featured suspiciously high on the hate-list of "jaal" foods!

Similarly, a friend's two-year-old successfully communicated her idea of a good time when her mother was trying to persuade her that good behaviour would be rewarded by a visit from Santa Claus. In addition to the joys of meeting Santa, her mother also emphasised that bad behaviour would result in a visit from Wee Willie Winkie (the boy from the children's poem, and clearly a much less desirable character, given his tendencies towards voyeuristic behaviour!) Anyway, while I was on the phone to this child the following day, her mother suggested that she tell me what she had learned about the rewards for good behaviour. When she was asked who would visit her if she was naughty, she somewhat reluctantly whispered "Wee Willie". So far, so good…

But the big surprise came with her answer to the next question. "And tell Farah Khala about Santa Claus now," encouraged her mother, "Who will come to visit you if you are a good girl?" Without missing a beat, the little girl replied "Farah Khala!" "What?!" squawked her outraged mother. "Farah Khala," she repeated firmly. "Okay," her mother gave up grudgingly, "Farah Khala will come to visit you if you're a good girl, but who else will come?" "Munni Doggie!" the child said gleefully, referring to her favourite among the dogs in our household. Basically, Santa Claus didn't even feature on the list of desirable visitors!

As another friend of mine pointed out, the little girl was simply demonstrating a strong streak of common sense - after all, far better that she should rely on a good time with a someone she liked and her favourite dog, than some geriatric old man supposedly bearing presents, whom she has not only never met, but is also known for strange behaviour such as climbing down chimneys! As for me, this is undoubtedly the only time in my life that I will ever beat Santa Claus in the category of "most desired visitor", so I'm still wallowing in the glory of it all...

"I'm hiding behind the elephant until the coast is clear…I don't want to run into Wee Willie Winkie or Santa Claus."

At other times, of course, what is quite clear to the child concerned can remain inexplicable to the adults around her - as I discovered to my cost when trying to help a friend decipher what her not quite three-year-old was trying to say she wanted to wear. The little girl had just awoken from a nap and was cranky, although determined to go swimming, as we had promised her when she was being put to bed for the nap. Now, all she would say was "I want to wear my pants". In vain did we argue that you couldn't go into the swimming pool wearing pants. She rejected her one-piece swimsuit with every appearance of revulsion. To make matters worse, we couldn't even identify the pants that she wanted to wear!

Half an hour and floods of tears later, despite the efforts of two reasonably intelligent adults (as I had considered us to be upto then!), we had been unable to persuade her to either give up the idea of wearing pants or to identify the pants concerned. It was at this point that my friend finally had a brainwave and brought out the small two-piece swimsuit which turned out to have been the cause of all this grief! Her daughter had seen one of the adults in the swimming pool wearing one earlier, and was determined to settle for nothing less (and of course, bikini bottoms do look just like ordinary panties…)

And then there are the times when only other children can really understand what a child is saying, no matter how well any given adult might think they know that child… I was travelling with my friend Tina and her young daughter, Joya, when we were entertained at the airport by Joya's attempt to chat up some children who were rather older than herself. These were two little English girls aged about six and eight, who appeared to be fairly seasoned travellers.

Tina and I were too far away to hear what Joya was trying to say to them, but we were both amused by her body language, which demonstrated a distinct swagger - presumably aimed at impressing the older kids. Since Joya can't speak much English, we were wondering what on earth she was saying to them, and finally Tina went over to get her. The other kids began to object to Joya's removal, when their father pointed out that they could not understand what she was saying anyway. No, no, they assured him, they could understand her - and according to them, she was speaking French…

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