Decoding the Downchucks and White Smiles

Children do not see things like we do. The world is being viewed through eyes that have not seen how a lot of thing work and because they don’t expect certain outcomes form certain events, their wide eyed interest in any given event is honest and open minded. If cars started growing wings and flying around, your average three year old would just roll with it. As far as they know, that sort of thing might happen every day. So what? They might be excited, but they wouldn’t have the mental logic hemorrhage that any adult would experience.

This same, “I guess that’s supposed to happen” view of the world also allows kids to implement their own limited experiences and logic on any given situation. Two of these leaps of logic come to mind from my own childhood. I don’t remember them myself, but the stories have been retold by my parents enough times so that they have become family folklore.

The first involved the clothes dryer. I was a very talkative child and used to enjoy following my Mom and Dad around the house, talking to them until their ears tried to flee their heads and hide in their armpits. On one of these days, I happened to be sitting on the cellar stairs, chatting my Mom down to a nub as she did the laundry. As she transferred the clothes from the washer to the dryer, I reportedly reminded her to check for filt.

“Filt? What’s filt?”, she managed to get in edgewise.
“You know? The filt. You have to get it out before you start the dryer.” I happily burbled.

What I was getting at was that she needed to clean out the filter on the dryer before she left. To a kid’s mind, it made perfect sense. Well, to mine it did, anyway. If that was the filter, what else could it be that was collected? It had to be filt! To a young mind, it only makes sense. To an adult, it’s like a code that needs breaking before you can tell what on earth your child is talking about.


The second kid-encryption that I know of from my own past, was the downchucks. Downchucks scared the hell out of me. This one stumped my folks for a long, long time. I was just old enough to say a word of my own invention clearly enough for others to understand it, but not old enough to explain what they were. All they knew was that the downchucks were in their bed room versus mine and that they worried me enough to keep me out of the place if it was dark or if one of my parents wasn’t with me the whole time.

Normally, this level of kid decoding requires a parent with a lot of personal understanding of what their child tends to see and imagine. In this particular case however, it was my aunt Janet who worked it out. From time to time, she watched me while my folks were out and one day while reading me a book, one line jumped out at her.

“Down, jumped the woodchuck, into his burrow.”

Then it dawned on her.

“Burrow”… “Bureau!”

She asked me if the downchucks were on my parent’s bureau. I replied that, yes, they were. She walked into my folks room and looked that the bureau. Specifically, she looked at the drawer pulls. This being the nineteen seventies in America, everything was required to have a colonial American theme to it. It was the ubiquitous style of the era. The plates on the face of the drawer pulls were American eagles. Not too intimidating… until you looked at the negative space and not the eagle. OH MY! If you ignored the eagle, the dark wood showing through the cut outs under the wings looked like very mean and scary eyes. The dressers in my parent’s room looked like two totem polls of nasty and malevolent gremlins! Those were the downchucks!

Short Stack has naturally come up with a few of his own zingers in his time and I’m sure we’ll be in for plenty more as time goes along. Most seem to come from his ability to “almost” get a long and tough word. He’ll make an admirable stab at it and then, right or wrong, go with it. We’ve figured out some while others have to simply be filed away for decrypting at a later date.

“Henra-ta-denra” was one of the more recent cracks that, having worked out on my own, I’m particularly proud of. He had been saying this for some time now and we always just shrugged our shoulders and smiled. Then, a few weeks ago, I looked in on Short Stack as he happily watched a kid show we have on the computer. In the video, a magician waves his magic wand and says, “Abracadabra!” Short Stack, big smile plastered across his chubby cheeks, immediately retorted, “Henratadenra!” I called Acton Girl right away when I finally had that code cracked!

The one that still has us stumped is “Viveeder”. Apparently, it has something to do with cars and trucks, but what it is exactly, we have no clue. Short Stack will point to some random vehicle and tell us emphatically, “This is a viveeder! It can viveed!”


The one that I worked out tonight was more on par with the downchucks than simply getting a word mixed up.

I had put Short Stack in bed and after the required three books had been read, I tucked him in, turned off the light, turned on the night light, gave him his kisses and headed down stairs. A few minutes later, I thought I heard whimpering. I walked to the foot of the stairs and was proven right. Something was wrong. I headed up and immediately got a big, worried hug as soon as I was safely within launching range of the bed. Then, the explanation.

“It’s a big, white smile! Who’s dat big, white smile? He has no legs and he’s peeking at me!”

This is the sort of thing that as a parent, you need to solve and solve fast. I looked around the room and could see nothing that looked even remotely like a “big, white, legless smile”. Hmmm. As soon as Short Stack was calm and sure that he was safe, I asked him to show me where the smile was. I picked him up and with him clinging to me like a baby monkey; we walked to the open doorway to his room. He thrust his round finger out accusingly at the wall.

“Dare it is. Dat’s the big, white smile!”

He clung on even harder. I still didn’t see it, but I had the idea. Taking him back to his little toddler sized bed, I lay down next to him. As I looked at the open door way, I tried to see things like my son did. I defocused and I looked at the doorway in front of me… and then I saw it. The big, white smile.

Well, to be honest, it was hard to see it as he described it, but to be fair, he was using the only words he had access to. What it turned out to be was a pool of light being thrown on the stairway wall by his night light. In the middle of the pool, was a series of knots in the wood planking that covers that section of wall. If looked at from his pillow, it looked kind of like a goofy smile. To him, it was like being watched while he was alone in his room. I understood immediately from my own childhood experiences with drawer pulls. Some time spent explaining what he was seeing on the wall and a quick relocation of the nightlight fixed the problem. The “big, white smile” was gone from view and he felt as though things were safe enough to fall asleep.

I don’t know if I can always decode the fears of my children on the fly like that, but I’ll sure as heck try. There’s a lot that catches you unaware when you’re a small child. The experiences of life have yet to come down your road and the things that are safe versus the things that are not, are easily confused. While my children are with me, I will do what I can to call them as I see them, and if I’m very lucky, I might even learn a few things from them as well.

I just wish he’d tell me what the heck a “viveeder” is.

Wordsmith in Training

My son, Short Stack is at the full fledged “tape recorder” stage of his life. Anything said or any sound made with in his earshot is more than likely to come flying back to you, but in a higher and squeakier register. Often, letters will be substituted here and there as he makes his first attempt, but more then not, he gets it right on the first try.

Fairly early on, I realized that a lot of the words that we teach kids work against them in the long run. Why would you teach them “horsie” when it’s a horse? Why get them to say “din-din”, when it’s actually dinner? “yummies” instead of snacks, “duckies” rather than ducks, “Nukular” instead of nuclear. Mr. Presidentman can’t even get that one right.

Not to say that there aren’t some words that he slaughters on his own. “Banana” becomes “banna” when left to Short Stack’s interpretation. The same with a crane being pronounced “train”, which can add a certain level of confusion to conversations with him. But, here’s the thing; Action Girl and I correct him with his pronunciation when he gets it wrong.

It’s really hard to do sometimes. Some of the things that come a-tumbling out of his mouth are somewhere just beyond amazingly, heartstoppingly adorable and you feel kind of like a monster telling him that it’s not an “ExcaBAtor”, but an excaVAtor. If you ask him what the excavator does, he’ll tell you that it “doops”. We love hearing these kid-isims but helping out with saying things correctly has, I believe, helped him expand his vocabulary very rapidly. Words don’t scare him.

A few weeks ago, Short Stack, his Grandfather and I were at a new playground. It was mostly set up for bigger kids so it was a bit tricky finding stuff that he could play on. Naturally, he was drawn directly to the stuff that made my heart stop. One such piece looked for all the world like the reclining, undulating spine and ribcage of a Playgroundosaurus. It was set up close to the ground and was intended to be walked along. Understand, I’m not one of those “tear out the teeter totters and merry go rounds” type of parents. This bit however, was made of welded pipe and obviously intended for children with a higher level of dexterity than your average two year old was likely to muster.

“I don’t know about this part, Buddy. It looks pretty lethal.”

Naturally, and much to the entertainment of the other moms there, Short Stack spent much of the his remaining playground time pointing out the offending play equipment to other folks and exclaiming, “I don’t know… Dat’s pretty lethal!”

I’m still working on “that” rather than “dat”.

This interesting little experiment that I’m running with my obliging child is a reflection of my own experiences when I was a knee biter. My parents taught me proper, common and sometimes, not so common words. As a result, I could carry on a conversation with an adult when I was fairly young. It had serious benefits.

Having the ability to speak well and articulately is a wonderful way to get what you want. You can make a logical case for it and preset your side of the argument in a thoughtful and organized manner. It helps avoid confusion and frustrations and, hey, it helped get me a ten speed bike when I was in fifth grade!

It’s also fun at parties… “I think Dad is full of Hooey” coming out of a two year old, is rather bemusing.

The best part, from my perspective is the surprised reaction from other adults and the obvious pleasure that Short Stack derives from knowing that a word he used gets a positive and unexpected reaction.

His current list of “My God! He knows what that is?” words are…

Wheel, (…versus the tire. The wheel is the metal hub)
Bachelor Buttons,
Neon Tetra (in the fish tank)
Portcullis, (he has a toy castle with one that you can drop on unsuspecting finger puppets)
Stabilizers, (on the sides of his toy backhoe)
Front-end loader.
and most importantly to me, “May I please have a ____”

That last one makes me beam every time.

So, Senior Statesman-to-be or seriously articulate lobsterman; I don’t really care what career he chooses. Just so long as he can say NU-CLE-ER.

That’s all I ask.

Snarky Post Script-
I refer you here to Merriam-Webster.

Apologies to those offended. 😉

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