On Teaching a Child to Talk

I started this essay over a year ago. Since then, the toddler who was just learning to talk is organizing house concerts and reciting Dr. Seuss. And I’ve had a daughter, now three months old. I don’t know how to raise two feminists—that is, two humans with the courage to challenge the status quo instead of using it to advance their own interests. Perhaps the hope I feel simply because of their existence is outsized, nothing they or any of us can deliver on. But in the time since I first started writing this piece, it’s become even more clear that every act counts—even one as simple as teaching them to talk.  


Talking with a two-year-old, especially one who thrives on ritual, is all about who’s in and who’s out—this is how we treat our friends, this is how we do things in our family. It feels tribal at times. I remember seeing responses by residents of Del Ray, a liberal neighborhood of Alexandria, Virginia, when posters stating “Around Blacks, Never Relax” and “You’re Losing Your Country, White Man” appeared on cars in May 2017: “this is not who we are.” Solidarity is important; we must condemn hatred and threats. But the urge to dissociate seems to deny the fact that we all harbor xenophobia—and that we need to address those feelings at the individual level. The conditioning, parenthood is teaching me on a whole new level, begins with bedtime stories.

Watching my son discover language is—after childbirth—the most wondrous experience of my life. Yet with each new expression, I feel less equal to the task. Owl or crow, airplane or satellite, the other night a little riff about the horizon—we, the adults around him, affirm his reality through repetition and elimination. He finds delight in naming, but how much of that is because of the response his words elicit? I fear that in gaining the power of language, he’s losing sensitivities that might serve as surer guides.


From the beginning, I’ve seen him using language to understand what goes together and what should be left out. He might confuse a mango for an orange, but somehow I doubt that he’ll call a book a car. “Let’s get the mail,” I remember saying, not expecting him to pay attention. And the next day, he stopped by the door to search for envelopes, finding significance in a place that he’d trotted by a hundred times before. We applaud this kind of precision, this ability to differentiate, but patterns exist through exclusion, and this too shapes our worldview.

In her novel The Passion, Jeanette Winterson writes, “You don't have to ask a child about happy, you see it. They are or they are not. Adults talk about being happy because largely they are not. Talking about it is the same as trying to catch the wind. Much easier to let it blow all over you.” I wish this physical and existential liberation for my children—of course I do. Whether it’s pride, or humiliation, or curiosity, I want them to perceive and be able to name their feelings—and then to have the courage to speak them out. But is this not the most entitled statement of all? Because embedded in it is an assumption that they’ll have recognized and checked their privilege, that they’ll listen as much as they talk, that they’ll allow others the space to be caressed by happiness, however they define it—even if that makes them uncomfortable. Talking is joy for my son, just like music is joy, and he has an audience wherever he goes—but when his sister’s turn comes, will her declarations be considered profound or just cute?

I hope that our sons and daughters access language to cross over or help others do the same, even when they don’t feel ready, even when the outcome might be frightening.

In Karak, Jordan, there’s a relationship to difference that I want to learn more about. In this community, Christians and Muslims have defended one another, educated one another, and relied on one another to facilitate conflict resolution for more than a thousand years. In the face of occupation and crusades and extremism that might turn these groups against one another, they have been unwilling to be divided. How do the people in Karak teach their children to see one another as equals—what language do they use to elevate what their cultures have in common, to revere each other’s houses of worship? It’s encouraging that identity can be constituted not by a narrative of exclusion—we who are persecuted, we who are haunted by our past, therefore we who must be wary of you—but one of interdependence. In this community, it seems, there is hope and bravery in the mere act of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.

I hope that our sons and daughters access language to cross over or help others do the same, even when they don’t feel ready, even when the outcome might be frightening. I heard an interview with the co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, Patrisse Cullors, in which she said:

There’s two Americas. For those of us who’ve lived in it, it was not in a box. We were experiencing it on a daily basis. It’s been trying to expose it to the America that has kept it in the box and that has been able to have the privilege to not witness, to not go through. I think now that that’s been exposed to the other America, you can’t put that back in. There’s no turning back.


I can’t prevent my children from acquiring language. I want them to achieve fluency, and more. And I acknowledge that for a while it will be all about telling red from blue, sugar from salt, safety from danger. But if I can help them understand language as a way to dismantle certainty—like the assertion that white supremacy has nothing to do with us—I think I’ll have learned a lot about myself in the process.

Those posters in Del Ray are an expression of racism and violence that I’ve been shielded from. Sooner or later, I’ll have to explain it to my children, and the prospect is daunting. Conversations about equality will be different with my daughter than with my son, and that’s devastating. So I try to remind myself that uncertainty means open-mindedness, too. We live with a friend, my children’s godparent, who is gender fluid. The other day, I heard my son use their pronoun correctly—which is more than most adults who come through our house can do. This felt like an accomplishment worth celebrating.

Tara is a Vermonter who lives in Columbia Heights, DC. She works in international education with a focus on China. Tara's writing has been published in The Atlantic and by the Woodrow Wilson Center's China Environment Forum. She was the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International Service at American University from 2011-2013. Tara loves reading (especially fiction), running in Rock Creek Park, and checking out new playgrounds with her kids.