A Language Built on Wants


The other morning we were awoken by the grand entrance of Teghan, as usual. I say “grand” because each time she will swing open the door and pause, excitedly; waiting for our acknowledgment of her presence before jumping on top of us. It’s an easy thing to take for granted, but I am still amazed at how different she is from the child who had zero interest in seeking us out in the morning—let alone consider jumping into our bed.

She can also dress herself and express what she wants. If it’s the weekend she will want to watch YouTube videos on daddy’s phone while snuggled between us. This is how we sleep in. Eventually she will get dressed and ask for breakfast. She knows she needs to get dressed first, and once she has accomplished it we know there is no stopping her from going downstairs.

Most of our conversations are along the lines of: “want…. cereal.” She is good at labeling with single words—she has definitely mastered the art of pairing anything with the word “want.” And that is where we have been stuck for a very long time.

But recently she has figured out how to string more words together. For example, last week we locked the refrigerator door because there was a cake inside (a thing we occasionally do ever since that time she thought cracking all the eggs on the carpet was hilarious and we didn’t find one of them right away). She was frustrated by our negative response to her regular strategy of saying “want cake” on an endless loop, and she actually came up to me and said: “want… key, lock, refrigerator, cake.”

She was so convinced of my ignorance, she was now offering me step by step instructions.

What is exciting is that this is new for her. Forget that I even understood her pronunciation of the word “refrigerator,” which is a feat on its own; but she is demonstrating a better understanding of how language works to express more complex thoughts. And it makes it incredibly difficult to say no to her.

So back to the other morning. Teghan made her grand entrance, as usual. And said, “morning!” We have been responding to her this way for years, but this is the first time she has ever said it herself. Unprompted, even. Of course, at this point it should be routine. Maybe we didn’t say it quickly enough and her OCD couldn’t take it. I don’t know. But there have been enough moments like this scattered across our days lately that I think it is something more.

I know the social aspect of small talk is useless to her—so maybe saying “morning” or “hi” will never hold much value. She has little interest in being polite. Maybe it’s just for us. But she is starting to realize that throwing words out there sometimes results in more than just getting what she wants. Sometimes it can result in explanations to things she has been wondering about. For example, we have conversations like this one a thousand times a day:

“Want…. beach.”

“We can’t go to the beach. It’s too cold.”

“Want…. beach?”

“Not today.”

“Want…. Pool. Go swimming.”

“Sorry, we can’t go swimming today.”

“Want…. beach.”

It alarms me to think of how many hours each week we devote to saying “no” to the beach, grandma’s house, our old house in Michigan…. and that Christmas tree she continually drags down from the upstairs closet. But she is beginning to engage a little more in the “discussion.” Now if I tell her the beach is too cold, she will say “cold” and perhaps even sit with me and look at some photos of frozen lakes (which she finds amusing). And then move on to ask for something completely different. Like toast. Not always…. but sometimes.

In many ways it’s subtle, but she is connecting with words on a whole new level right now. She is more interested in expanding her vocabulary than ever before, and she has even become a willing participant when we guide her with saying the words correctly. Instead of running away in frustration, she will hang around and practice.

But the biggest change is how she is using combinations of words to express more than “wants” alone. Something is starting to make sense to her that didn’t make sense before. And as usual, we are learning a few things along the way, too.


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