Saturday, March 03, 2007


In past posts, there have been a couple of people who have asked about how I've cultivated the possums' talent with language. I know this isn't really an atheist topic, but seeing as I have so many parents on this blog (and that this was a specific request), I thought I'd touch upon this. If you were one of the two people who asked this question in past comments, then identify yourself. :)

Language has always been important to my husband and I. I don't condone any violence in my home. I prefer to focus on the power of language and words. I'm, by no means, an expert, are my two cents.

I think that all children should be encouraged to develop a large vocabulary. I have a really big problem with parents who use "baby talk" around their children. Without going into too much unnecessary detail, I think baby talk is degrading to the baby. You can alter pitch and content, but don't patronize children: they are smarter than we give them credit for. Above all else, they are fellow human beings and deserve to be treated as such.

My advice:
1. Read to them. All the time. And, don't limit yourself to story books and fairy tales. I've found that babies are extremely open to Tennyson, Whitman, and Emerson. Possum#1 was a big fan of "The Lady of Shallot". Exposing them to poetry appeals to the part of their brain that loves rhythm and the flowery language of these great poets. "Shallot", in particular, is melodic and soothing.
2. Don't skimp on big words. USE language and vocabulary!! Children learn what they live and they mimic what they hear. Why is it that we assume young children would only enjoy Curious George? I mean, sure,...a good tale about a monkey and the Man with the Yellow Hat has a place...but, why stop there?
3. Make words a game. When you hop in the car for a drive, ask your child to describe what they're seeing. Take walks and encourage them to tell you about their perspective. The benefits are two-fold: a) you boost their self-confidence and show them that their voice is valuable. b) you have a golden opportunity to teach them about adjectives. Here's a play-by-play of a conversation that P#3 (age 4) and I had this evening.
P#3: Momma'!! Look at that tree!
Me: Which tree?
P#3: The tree with the flowers on it.
Me: Those are buds! What do you like about them?
P#3: They look like snow. They are frosty-white and look very small.
Me: Yes. They do look like snow. They're very delicate. Do you think they would melt like snow?
P#3: I don't think so. They look like my dress...the one with the lace.
Me: You are right! Good observation! What do you think they would feel like?
P#3: Soft like a puppy's tongue.
Me: Like a silky sheet?
P#3: Yeah... like those. I bet they feel slippery.

And, there you have it.
4. If you just use the small, everyday observations and ask questions that encourage them to refine their idea... you can then introduce different words.
5. Little brains are sponges!!
6. ALLOW THEM TO TALK!! I meet so many parents who don't let their children speak. I know they love their children, but they really seem not to care about the thoughts of their children. If a child feels like he/she is being ignored, they stop expressing themselves verbally and move onto more primal behaviors. If you listen and allow them to speak, no matter how simple or silly the topic, you're allowing them the chance to USE words. That's empowering. When you encourage them to find new words for their feelings, you are giving them a great gift.
7. Describe things to them! It could be mac and cheese night...describe the shells. Describe the ingredients in the mac and cheese. Ask them to descibe other objects that are that; color, texture, shape, and/or taste.
It's not difficult and it's free! They are only limited by your vocabulary and your willingness to play along.
8. DON'T JUMP IN AND BE HASTY TO CORRECT THEM! This one took me some time to internalize. Once, my son told me that ice was fiery. I quickly corrected him, thinking that he had made a "stupid mistake." He was cresftallen. Realizing that I had hurt his feelings and shut him down (because I was impatient and busy), I apologized and asked him what he meant about ice being "fiery". He described, to me, that he thought his ice cube was "fiery" because if you held it for a long time, it burned your hand like fire. It left you hands red and raw (like fire). And, if you held it up to the light, it make "fiery" reflections on the wall- " when you hold a birthday candle in the dark."
This leads to point #9: NEVER assume that they are not thinking! EVER!
#10 - Play word games. Scrabble. Balderdash. Scattergories. Word association. Anything that encourages them to think and use language.

Edited to add: P#1 reminded me of one of her favorite CAR ganes. When you're in the car, at a stop light or waiting point, ask: "How many different words can you think of that mean 'mad'"? (You can insert any emotion, color, or topic word.)


Joy said...

Oh, so very true! I teach a class of 2 and 3 year-olds, and they are as sharp as tacks. It bugs the hell out of me when certain parents make up dumbed-down names for things they deem "too advanced" for their child. I say, let the child lead they way. If they ask, give them a clear answer. It's a penis, not a wee-wee, people. Purple can be seen as "pinky-blue-mash-up". It's really ok. Words should be honest, exciting, and FUN. :)

Grammar Moses said...

You said:

Language has always been important to my husband and I.

Apparently, language has not been important enough for you to know that the pronoun should be "me," not "I."

Atheist in a mini van. said...

Apparently, language has not been important enough for you to know that the pronoun should be "me," not "I."

I'm being completely serious when I ask: really?

Aimee said...

grammar moses,

Oh for fucks sake, mistakes happen.

Atheist in a mini van. said...

Aimee said...
grammar moses,

Oh for fucks sake, mistakes happen.

LOL! The funny thing is...I make TONS of grammatical errors. And, in this case, I'm truly curious how that grammar rule works. ;)

But, I love ya' for stepping in to defend me. :)

Aimee said...

The rule of thumb (as I remember it) is that it is supposed to still read right as if the other person were not a part of the sentence. Like: Bob and I went for a walk. You can take out 'Bob and', and still have a proper sentence.

But you know what, shit happens and you move on. Life it too short to be picky about a little grammatical error : )

Paul said...


rofflecakes. :)

Milo Johnson said...

Help them learn to read with ease and pleasure and how to use a library. Reading twenty or thirty thousand books promotes general intelligence as well as the acquisition of a rich and useable vocabulary.

darrell said...

I teach English...and that being said...I make grammar mistakes all the time.

But should be "me" because me is the first person object pronoun. As in "Quit doing that to me. Things are done to "me"..."I" does things.

I / my / me / / your / you / yours...

Sigh, it is my life.

Atheist in a mini van. said...

But should be "me" because me is the first person object pronoun. As in "Quit doing that to me. Things are done to "me"..."I" does things.

Ok...that makes sense. I probably need to have my daughter edit my posts. ;)

Sarah said...

Interestingly, from a socio-linguistics perspective, you were probably engaging in what we call 'over-correction.' How many times were you corrected as a child: "it's you and I, dear" without anyone explaining the rule. You internalize that slightly misunderstood and often misdirected correction and over apply it, assuming that educated people say 'you and I' and uneducated people say 'you and me.' It's the most fascinating part of socio-linguistics to me (an English as a foreign language teacher and Linguistics grad who often makes plenty of grammar mistakes that I just chock up to 'descriptive grammar' interfering with 'prescriptive grammar').

Thanks for all the inspiring posts.

Whalehugger said...

My parents were very much into reading to me when I was little, from Dr. Suess to the Warner Brother cartoons. My dad always used it as an excuse to come in from yard work on Saturdays to read the Coyote's signs since I couldn't at that point. As I grew older, I started reading (amongst other books) comic books and I have to credit Marvel Comics for adding to my vocabulary. My favorite character was Dr. Doom and he tended to use these large, fancy words in all his speeches, so I'd have to run for the dictionary to figure out what the heck he was saying!

As for Grammar Moses: I work as a medical transcriptionist for a living, so my grammar and spelling has to be on the money. However, on the internet, I will let grammar or spelling get past. Why? In my profession, I'm getting paid for accuracy and correctness. IOW, it's my job. So if you want grammatical (and spelling) perfection from others, put your money where your mouth is.

Maggie Rosethorn said...

Pmomma--I read to my children a lot when they were young, like you do. And you are right--you can read anything to them, who cares if they understand it or not. They will internalize the words and, if poetry, the rhythms, and make them their own. Another important thing is to LET THEM HAVE THEIR OWN BOOKS! I know too many parents to take books away from kids because they might tear the pages, color in them, or whatever. While I never condoned random destruction, when they were that young we had tons of the cardboard pages books and the kids could "read" them at any time. Several of the stories they loved so well that today, 15+ years later, they (and my husband and I) can still recite parts of the books. They are both good readers, with large vocabularies.

aimee said...

My daughter's favorite book right now and my least favorite because it has been read A LOT is Goodnight Moon, she is only 20 months old though. But when her brothers 8 and 9 get out their books from school to do their book reports, you can always count on her to be up in your lap wanting to hear that book too!

Grammar Moses said...

I don't want to belabor grammar here, particularly on a blog that's decently written and so entertaining to read. But let me point out a few things.

The so-called "rules" of English usage, grammar, spelling, and punctuation are not arbitrary. We atheists, who pride ourselves so much on rationality, ought to be equally rational about how we sling the language. Unless we want to communicate merely by drawing pictures and pointing while making inarticulate squawks, we must use the spoken and written word. Sloppy grammar often implies imprecise thinking. There are good reasons for the way language has evolved. In fact, it is still evolving. The desire for clarity is usually the key to grammatical changes.

Darrell said:
I teach English...and that being said...I make grammar mistakes all the time.

If you taught science, math, or history, would you confess so gleefully to your frequent mistakes? Why should your subject be any less valuable in real-life situations than those others?

sarah calls herself an English as a foreign language teacher and Linguistics grad who often makes plenty of grammar mistakes that I just chock up to 'descriptive grammar' interfering with 'prescriptive grammar.'

I don't think there's anything "descriptive" about most grammatical errors, unless you're writing dialogue. (The phrase is "chalk up," by the way, not "chock up.") One of the reasons that our current president's comments are so frequently laughable is that he doesn't seem to understand the ridiculous implications of his syntax.

whalehugger said:
However, on the internet, I will let grammar or spelling get past.

I, too, usually let grammar or spelling "get past." In fact, this is the first time I've ever made a grammatical comment, and then only because of the sentence I "corrected," which -- sorry, Atheist in a Minivan -- made me laugh out loud.

But, admit it, everyone. When you see lots of misspellings, subliterate grammar, and improper punctuation (and I'm by no means saying that this blog is guilty of those things, because it isn't), you're less inclined to give credence to a writer's ideas. Those of us in the atheist blogosphere can tell you that comments by religion's defenders are often incoherent because of the way these geniuses express themselves. I'm not arguing that we should strive for absolute perfection. But a person's thoughts are represented, to a large extent, by his or her use of language. Word choice, as Atheist in a Minivan so astutely points out, is one way we can make our ideas more precise. Using correct grammar is another.

Russ said...


"Words" is a great post, but I feel compelled to sternly yet respectfully disagree with one phrase: "I know this isn't really an atheist topic." Yet, as urged on as I feel, I PMomma baiting us? Tricksy she is!

Religions survive by manipulating people's minds, and, they achieve it mostly through words, so, as I see it, this is very much an atheist topic. In evidence, I humbly submit, PMomma, even though we atheists know it to be both unjustified and an abuse of language, the word "atheist" itself is used to vilify us by religionists hypocritically claiming to cherish truth and honesty.

The atheists who stop by PMomma's Place no doubt grasp the power of language to facilitate communication, unlock creativity, provide a framework for thriving thought, and thus enable and encourage free inquiry. At the same time, however, they will similarly appreciate how language is used by theists to quell dissent, compel conformity, denigrate outgroups including atheists, enforce obedience, and to overtly inhibit rational thought. Weaponized words - lies, deceitfulness, defamation, skulduggery - are turned against anyone at odds with their words of sacred doctrine.

The process of religious indoctrination consists almost exclusively of controlling how the minions relate to ideas born on words. Think of how science's take on "evolution," stands in stark contrast to what Johnson, Dembski, Ham, Hovind, Gish, and Morris, among numerous others tell their "true believers" about Darwin's monumental intellectual accomplishment. Recall "Jesus Camp's" Becky Fisher railing against Harry Potter, as she sought to bludgeon into her young audience the idea that Rowling's fictions had real-life analogs. Clergy undermine their follower's understanding of the natural world using words. From cradle to grave religious people are held hostage to imaginary threats using words. Entire lifetimes are often extorted by religions using only words.

In your post, "Atheism... sandwiched between two Gods," you subtly expressed this theme when you mentioned that examples of atheists included no prominent Americans. Whether intentional or not the omission could be expected to depict atheism in a less favorable light and reduce the use of the word. After all, atheism characterizes only non-Americans, right? Complete omissions also exert a pressure toward disuse.

Oftentimes, ultimate responsibility for deciding the content of an encyclopedia lies with a small number of editors. Many of these people live under constant pressure to assure that entries are as favorable toward specific groups as possible. Think Catholic priest child sex abuse. When do you think that will make it into encyclopedias under "Roman Catholicism"? They've spent billions of dollars to cover it up and pay damages, and I have no doubt they will spend whatever necessary to keep it out of reference works and public records. As I said in my response to Anonymous, words are meaningful. For religions, that dictates that words must be controlled.

Just as we must demand that accurate information regarding evolution be taught in our schools, so too do we need to insist on high quality language instruction, including respect for accepted semantics. For instance, only the corrupt associate evolution with personal life situations like divorce or abortion, and only a fraud would associate the science of evolution with unrelated non-science concerns like atheism.

The intellectual starting point for every generation is the legacy handed down to it through language by the previous generation. If the language has been intentionally destroyed or corrupted the intergenerational communication breaks down, and previous advancements are subject to loss or abandonment. For instance, knowledge of the technology that built the pyramids was lost by destruction of records. Also, for several centuries - yes, centuries - knowledge that the earth was round was actively suppressed in the West by the Christian church which outlawed the words. As the words faded from popular memory, so did the idea itself.

Someone once said that for ignorance to flourish we don't need to burn books, we simply need to stop reading them. We stop reading books when we don't know the words; we don't know the words when we stop learning words; and, we stop learning words when we don't value words. If we don't value words, others will dictate the words we're allowed to use. Those words will reflect their ideas of the world and life. If religions are allowed to choose the words, many ideas, including ideas of non-belief, will be lost as they impose their narrowness of mind.

So, for me "Words" are a very important atheist topic: how we learn words, how we use words, how we protect words from corruption, and how we demonstrate that we value words.

Atheist in a mini van. said...

Russ, I completely agree with everything you said. I probably should not have used that phrasing, because I agree that the issue of language and vocabulary goes beyond theology or philosophy. In fact, it's the tie that binds. Or, in some cases, the knife that divides.

I think, in this country, we are losing the art of language. Higgins might say that, "In America, (we) haven't spoken English in years." :) I think we've abbreviated language and vocabulary - for many reasons- and it's killing us. Notations of our thoughts become increasingly vague and conformity is prized about individuality. So, yes... I agree with you that this COULD be considered an atheist issue. Giving children the power to express their thoughts and, more importantly, ask more complex questions with precision is a goal atheist parents should strive for. However, it I would say that ALL children (atheist or not) should be encouraged to obtain this skill.

**On a side note: *my* language skills are wanting at the moment. :) My mind is elsewhere... I apologize for the rambling nature of this comment.

darrell said...

(Sorry to pmomma for feeding the troll...)

If you taught science, math, or history, would you confess so gleefully to your frequent mistakes? Why should your subject be any less valuable in real-life situations than those others?

Listen jackass...

I teach English. It happens to be my first language. I also happen to speak two other languages fluently. One of those languages is Japanese. I am living in Japan right now. I am speaking a lot of Japanese. I was simply admitting that sometimes I conflate the two and make mistakes. In fact it happens quite often over here. Being able to admit your mistakes is important, and if I taught science I hope I'd be able to correct myself...or *gasp* accept it if one of my students had to correct me when I made a mistake.

Plus I never said English wasn't valuable. Don't put words in my mouth. One thing I've learned from teaching a foreign language is that if you constantly bitch people out about the rules of said language you will scare them away from speaking it. That's why I've come to the decision that as long as you're communicating, you're doing just fine. Mistakes are bound to happen, and they're not the end of the world.

Atheist in a mini van. said...

Grammar Moses,
Why do say 'mistake' like it's a bad thing? I think that that mentality is part of the problem! If I hadn't have made the grammatical mistake, you wouldn't have had any reason to correct it for me. As a result, I would not have learned!

I have been struggling to teach my children, often to the frustration of their teachers, that mistakes USUALLY teach us more than the successes. We should, of course, aim for the most correct way of doing something... but, we shouldn't be so afraid of the mistakes that we simply stop growing and learning. I don't care if it's English, Math, Science, or cooking lasagna- you learn from your mistakes and you value those lessons.
Children, and adults, have to learn that we don't always get the outcome we expect and that humananity (and, therfore THE humanities) are imperfect.

So,...thank you for your correction. I will strive to write correctly--- but, I'm also a mother of four... by this time of the night, I'm tired. ;)

Sarah said...

Grammar Moses,
Grammar rules are arbitrary. Language is not perfect, nor is it by any stretch of the imagination uniform. Prescriptive grammar is what the books tell you is correct. Descriptive grammar is what people actually use. The little 'mistakes' in language, much like the mutations in genes, are what have created the many languages we speak.
In strict, formal writing, prescriptive grammar is necessary. In relaxed conversation, such as a blog, getting your point across clearly and succinctly is all that is necessary. If your grammar interferes with that, it's a problem. If your regional grammar (or do you think every English speaker follows the rules set out by a few Oxford scholars?) gets in the way, then it's interesting and can cause misunderstandings, but that doesn't make it wrong.
If you live in in some isolated fishing port where they add 's' a certain group of first person singular verbs, then you are actually the one who is speaking incorrectly for that context.
I agree with much of what you say. A well written piece has much more clout in my eyes (provided the logic in the ideas is as good as the logic in the grammar), however, this is a dialog. Choosing a subject pronoun in place of an object pronoun in a world where this is commonly heard is a far cry from the squawks you see as the other option.

Grammar Moses said...

Darrell said:
(Sorry to pmomma for feeding the troll...)
Listen jackass...

I never read ad hominem attacks. If you want to discuss ideas, cool. If your pea-brain is incapable of discourse without resorting to name-calling, please ignore my comments.

Sarah said:
If you live in in some isolated fishing port where they add 's' a certain group of first person singular verbs, then you are actually the one who is speaking incorrectly for that context.
But if you live in that fishing port and you'd like to get your message out to the wider world, you might want to learn how to use standard language to communicate with others. I do agree with you about regionalisms, although you must admit that many of them are sub-literate. By the way, although this is completely irrelevant, you might be interested to know that even birds sing in regional dialects. There are some excellent studies showing how particular species' songs vary within different areas of their ranges. If a bird doesn't speak the "correct" one for his turf, though, he is not likely to pass on his genes.

Atheist in a Minivan asks: Why do say 'mistake' like it's a bad thing?
Please do not get the idea that pointing out a mistake implies a judgement about a person. People do, indeed, learn from their mistakes, so there is nothing inherently bad about making a mistake. But mistakes themselves aren't good things, are they? You don't actually encourage your children to make random errors, I'm sure. If one of them does make a mistake, you patiently show them why they were incorrect, and then applaud them for learning how to avoid similar mistakes in the future.

I urge you to buy yourself a simple grammar book to understand how English is structured. It will probably be a pain in the neck to read, but you might enjoy learning some new things about the language you speak and write. Learning grammar for a writer is like acquiring better tools for a carpenter. You don't always need to pull out the fanciest implement, but it's good to know you have it if you need it.

Terra said...


Thank you for this post. I have to agree whole-heartedly with you and Joy about not "dumbing down" words-even for the very young. I taught classes of 5 and 6 year olds and I just spoke to them the way I speak to my peers, family & friends. If they didn't understand a word, inevitably, one of them would ask what it meant. I was recently watching an episode of Antiques Roadshow (yes, I'm a geek) and the appraiser was talking to a girl of about 11 years (I would guess) He was talking to her like he thought she was a baby. She had the funniest uncomfortable look on her face the whole time. It looked like she was thinking, "Why is he talking to me like that? What an asshat."

Someone else mentioned Dr. Seuss. I can recite almost the entirety of The Lorax and have almost every book, although I don't have any children. Dr. Seuss is just plain fun to read. Sometimes I get the stories out and read them out loud to just myself. They also (depending on the story) have some wonderful life lessons. (Lorax, Sneeches, Oh the Places...) I often used The Lorax in my zoo classes to teach about pollution, habitat degradation, etc. He made it so easy! (and fun!)

Atheist in a mini van. said...

Someone else mentioned Dr. Seuss. I can recite almost the entirety of The Lorax...

I actually had a two week stint where, EVERY NIGHT, I had nightmares in which I was being forced to read "The Foot Book" on a Tilt-a-whirl. "The Foot Book" was Possum#2's FAVORITE book for about a year (between 11 months and 23 months). To this day, ten years later, I still cringe whenever P#3or#4 walk into the room with that book. On the upside, I can recite it from memory and have had great fun embellising it. :) LOL
"Left foot, left foot, left foot, right. Feet in the morning. Feet at night."
Theodore Geisel was the Elvis of children's literature. He wrote The Foot Book in 1968, it's my cross to bare. ;) The other Seuss book that my kids LOVED was Mr. Brown Can Moo. If you read that book, in a group of adults, after a bottle of Cuervo, stuff gets reeeeal interesting. I'm just sayin'... *

*I don't drink, actually, but we have some friends come visit who, with my hubby, knocked off a bottle of Ta-kill-ya'. "Mr. Brown can do it! How about you?" ;)

John said...

I am nearly deaf, so the closed captions on my TV are on all of the time.

I believe it has something to do with why both my kids were reading at 4 years old.

erin said...

I've been reading to Luke while I nurse him, so he's already made his way through a Carl Hiassen novel. Perhaps not age appropriate reading, but I think it's important to hear the words. The other day, I didn't have my book, so I recited "Annabel Lee" by Poe. I feel that I'm probably scarring him with the bizarre reading choices!

Alyx said...

Um... Theodore Geisel was the Elvis of children's literature. He wrote The Foot Book in 1968, it's my cross to bare. ... the correct phrase is "cross to bear," as in "carry." But, I didn't want to assume that you'd made a mistake, because it could alternatively be a really sly pun on your part. *g*

However, back to the original post. Yes yes YES! to all that you said. My mother taught me to read before I was in preschool, I think; we had a magnetic letter board with magnet-backed plastic letters. My parents subscribed to a children's Book of the Month Club, and we were regular visitors to the library, so my brother and I had a steady stream of new books to read. And "Stories At Bedtime" was a cherished nightly ritual for us both, but Mom always alternated pages with us -- first she'd read a page, then we'd read a page. (Unless she was trying to put us right to sleep... then she'd read them herself, in as soothing and soporific a tone as she could manage... heh....) This was how we'd read books with her during the day, too.

Unlike my literarily-minded aunt, who was forever trying to shove "Great Literature" down her kids' (and my) throats, Mom let me read whatever caught my fancy. As a result, I was actually reading "Great Literature" early in grade school, unlike my poor cousins who couldn't stand the stuff and avoided it like the proverbial plague. I was proficient in Greek mythology by the fourth grade, and I remember taking Macbeth along as light reading during a 7th grade badn trip. Mom inculcated within me a love of reading, words, and learning itself that remains with me even now.

(The only problem I ran into was that my vocabulary came mostly from reading, not verbal usage, so I'd end up with some... interesting... mental pronunciations. For example -- for years I thought "misled" was pronounced "my-zled," until I saw the Jermaine Jackson video with the same name on MTV back in the 80's, even though I knew what the word meant. I'd mentally broken it down wrong when I first encountered the word, and the misread (heh) stayed with me until I actually heard it.

((Oh, and PMomma -- my mother's two book banes were Little Black, A Pony for me, and Go, Dog, Go! for my brother. Of course, since she loathed those two books so very very much, they were our absolute favorites, respectively. *g* She also had Cat in the Hat memorized down to her dying day, but she actually enjoyed that one.))

Alyx said...

Erm... sorry about the typos and net-style goofs....

aimee said...

Can't stand "Are you my mother"!

Little Black, A Pony was the first chapter book my son read : )
(I'd never heard of it before that).

shaun said...

I have a question for ya, P-Momma: when is a good age to really start working with larger words / more difficult vocabulary. My daughter is only 5 months old, so reading Where the Wild Things Are feels OK - in fact, because my daughter doesn't really interact so much when doing this sort of activity, it seems a bit advanced. What are your thoughts?

aimee said...

I know you didn't ask me, but why not start now? It doesn't hurt her to hear big words. She could end up with an outstanding vocabulary in pre-school. I have a nephew who is now 11, he was reading Harry Potter in 1st grade. HE was reading it, not being read to and he understood it! I agree with Pmomma that the worst thing you can do is "baby talk" to your baby. She doesn't care what you are reading right now. She wants to hear your voice and be interacted with.