The importance of vocabulary cannot be overestimated. We could be grammatically incorrect, be phonetically imperfect, or use words in the wrong order, but the meaning could usually still be deducted. However, for obvious reasons, using the wrong words could result in a communication breakdown and/or have dire consequences.
A timely example to illuminate the importance of using the correct keywords is to refer to our recent Chinese New Year custom of wishing each other good health, prosperity, and various other well-meaning keywords. Not only are well-wishes customary and polite, but for some receivers, the responsibility of a failed or successful year rests on what golden words are bestowed upon them during those pivotal fifteen days. Imagine the devastation of discovering that we had unintentionally offered the wrong words, or being at the receiving end of them!
For children, by the time they enter school, they can understand and use from hundreds to thousands of words. Through imitation and practice, they know when and how to use the correct words and combination of words in the appropriate contexts, with the correct facial and hand gestures, and the right amount of emotion, for successful communication.
For example, I had the pleasure of witnessing a maturing in my 9-year-old daughter’s language development (and confidence) this past Chinese New Year. Unlike previous years, she displayed creativity with offering a variety of courteous greetings towards our relatives and friends, and even managed to mentally sort through which keywords were more appropriate for the elderly.
Children also understand that no special occasion is needed to greet
Children between the ages of 8-11 make significant growth in intellectual, physical, and language development. At this stage they’ve acquired the skills to understand and practice language registers (how language can vary according to context and purpose such as written vs. spoken language, or language use with friends versus with the school principal), pragmatics such as offering greetings and responding appropriately to them, and have the ability to reflect on their own words and the words of others.
Learn to Say
It’s clear that greetings are a daily part of our social conduct. But sometimes adults may take it for granted that the typical child can mimic us and apply the practice of saying “hello-how are you-I’m fine-goodbye”.
For most children being able to offer words of courtesy is not an unusually difficult task, but nevertheless, it’s worth taking the time to be thankful that our primary school children have reached this level of skill and maturity.
To offer and reciprocate a greeting requires a child to assess who is worth stopping a moment for, that a greeting does not require deep thoughts or emotions, as well as what to expect from a receiver as notification of the end of the exchange. Nuances such as lingering for too long, projecting a needless level of emotion, or not reciprocating are skills and experiences that a primary school child has mastered in learning to offer and react to a greeting.
Children also understand that no special occasion is needed to greet. It is a routine that is simple, direct, with an obvious end that is offered out of courtesy through habit.
So each day, when I pick up my daughter from school and I see her politely greeting her friends, teachers, and principal, I take the moment to appreciate her accomplishment.
Need to Say
Offering condolences usually requires empathy, social perception and the skills to express intentions and meaning. They also require children to understand that some words are said because it’s necessary, even if those words cannot change a person’s suffering.
For example, I recently had to attend the funeral of my friend’s mother, and when I notified my daughter of the news she knew that it was a situation that required empathy for other (rather than self). With a concerned expression she momentarily placed herself in someone’s else’s shoes and asked of my friend, “Is Aunty Mary going to be okay?”, and even offered to join me at the funeral in case I needed her company.
Even if she knew that nothing else could be done for the bereaved, effort was made on the part of someone as young as nine years old, to offer words of concern with the intention to comfort rather than to let the moment pass unacknowledged.
By showing that they feel what others feel, and are willing to actively participate in the world of others, children display a heightened level of maturity, sophistication and comprehension of human emotional needs.
As such, the fact that my daughter could decipher how and when to offer words because it was necessary, was for me (despite the sad circumstances) a moment worth rejoicing.
Saying with Meaning
The right keywords could bring out the full beauty of a moment. And the most magical words for a parent to hear are those that come from the heart of her child -- when children really mean what they say.
Recently I had a conversation with my daughter that was philosophical in nature. The conversation ended in our decision to agree to disagree, followed by our going into separate rooms to carry on with our day. Half an hour later as I proceeded to pass by her room on my way to my own room, I inadvertently turned my head to find her sitting serenely at her desk and looking out the window. Just before I passed by she turned around and said to me, with genuine and full appreciation “Mama, I love you.”
Through my past experience with her former “Aha!” moments, I knew that she had experienced another epiphany through reflection of our conversation.
This time, I could sense that the emotional words of “Mama, I love you” arrived from her realization of my intention, i.e. that our talk was to make her a more informed and better person, even if they may not have been words she wanted to hear. Also, she managed to fully appreciate the gist of our conversation, i.e. that certain aspects of life are not pleasant but that we could control outcomes through how we choose to react to them.
Yes, even a nine-year old has the capacity for philosophical understanding. Better yet, they have the capacity to go through their own process of understanding. It is merely our responsibility to share keywords which may inspire them.
Although I have never entertained the idea that my daughter would not “get it”, it is the most rewarding time for a parent to find evidence that confirms that our children can reflect, be awakened by, and fully embrace the importance and strength of our teaching moments.
The simple words “I love you” are already precious, but when our children say it in the context of treasuring the efforts we have made to nurture them, it can move parents to the core. It also encourages us to keep nurturing, because children will eventually show us that when we give them time and space, they will awaken at their own rate.
As long as we keep adding to their resource for self-knowledge, children will keep illuminating the idea that they appreciate the depth and richness of our words, by reciprocating with their heartfelt keywords, “I love you.”