Have you ever wondered what our pre-verbal infants and young toddlers are really thinking when we bundle them up, strap them in, and drag them along with us as we go about performing our adult to-do lists? As kids get older, of course, we can explain our plans for their day. Although they may not always agree, at least they know what's in store for them: "We're going to the mall," "We're dropping your sister at a friend's," "We're visiting Grandma." And they may answer, in adorable toddler Tarzan-speak, "Want ice cream!" "Need potty!" "More ice cream!" Or, simply, and not so adorably, "NO!!" Some days they might end up on the supermarket floor throwing a tantrum: "DON'T WANT TO!!" For better or worse, when they can speak, at least we know their opinions on the matter at hand.
But in the more tranquil months before they communicate with words, it's only their gestures, body language, and the tone of their whimpering (or shrieking) that give us clues to their innermost feelings about...well, about everything! In particular, my wife and I were always curious about what our little ones thought we were doing when we packed them into a baby carrier, backpack, or car seat and set them in motion. It must have been especially weird for them when they were facing backward, looking at our chests or at the car seatback. What was it like for them to be helpless hostages to our adult whims, never knowing when each journey would begin, how long it would last, or where it would end?
I've come to believe that kids store up their responses to the ways we manipulate their lives until the day they have just enough vocabulary to burst forth with a revelation. Case in point: our youngest son's first sentence, uttered into a plastic toy telephone while strapped into his car seat in the back of the minivan, was, "Driving-car-pool-be-little-late." Or perhaps it wasn't a sentence at all. It actually came out sounding like he thought it was one really long word, a "word" he'd undoubtedly heard his parents use far too often. He had accompanied his older siblings and their friends on the ride to school with us so many times that he learned to associate the term "car pool" with turning right-left-right-right-left after leaving the driveway. As it turns out, he knew where he was headed long before he could speak. And when he finally could speak, it all came out at once: "Driving-car-pool-be-little-late."
Not long after that, he surprised us again with his growing car seat lexicon when, as we pulled into the hardware store's parking lot, he shrieked, "NO MORE ERRANDS!!"
Dr. Harley A. Rotbart is Professor and Vice Chairman Emeritus of Pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and Children's Hospital Colorado. He is the author of three books for parents and families, including the recent No Regrets Parenting, a Parents advisor, and a contributor to The New York Times Motherlode blog. Visit his blog at noregretsparenting.com and follow him on Facebook and Twitter (@NoRegretsParent).
Image: Wondering Asian baby via Shutterstock