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Opinion l From the mouth of babes

Columnist Diksha Basu learns some conversation tips from her toddlers

Part of me wants my children to never play by any societal rules.
Part of me wants my children to never play by any societal rules. (Istockphoto)

When we go for long meandering walks in the town in upstate New York where we are currently riding out the pandemic, my three-year-old loves bumping into people with dogs. She understands social distancing so from at least 6ft away, she shouts, “What’s your dog’s name?"

Then she introduces herself—name, age. Then she introduces her baby sister—name, age. She chats a bit, depending on the friendliness of the person with the dog and then, when she’s ready, she says, “Okay bye."

She grabs her baby sister’s hand and they both toddle off in search of chipmunks while the other adult and I are stuck sharing small pleasantries as a way to politely end the conversation.

What wasted time, gently shaking our heads about the humidity in the air when we too could have been chasing chipmunks (or the adult equivalent—scrolling through Twitter).

Later that night, before bed, my three-year-old says: “I really like Pepper. The adult with her was wearing blue shorts and a blue shirt."

“Who?" I ask.

“Pepper. The black and white dog. And the adult said Pepper likes the smell of the rain, remember?"

I did not remember any of that because I hadn’t treated it like a real interaction. I had barely registered any of it, dismissing it as yet another forced fleeting exchange of small talk that I wasn’t interested in. But for my daughter, every bit of that interaction had been magical (and the moment it stopped being so, she ended it).

A few days later, when we bumped into Pepper again, my daughter and Pepper’s owner shared a few more facts about themselves. My daughter jumped straight into it, asking whether or not the woman had ever flown a kite.

“All the time when I lived in San Francisco," the woman said. “Not so much recently."

“Right," my daughter nodded, as if she has any idea that San Francisco exists. She then told the woman about her own recent first experience flying a kite down near the lake and the woman told her she sometimes rides her bike down by the lake but it had a flat tyre that needed fixing , and that was it, my daughter said bye and wandered away.

I stared after her, amazed at how much information she had managed to get from this woman so quickly. I looked at the woman, so much more interested in her now, wondering why she hadn’t had her flat tyre fixed given that she clearly enjoyed riding her bike enough to take it all the way down to the lake. I wanted to ask her why she left San Francisco, I imagined an ex-husband, maybe one who doesn’t even know how to ride a bike. I suddenly felt I had so much more to ask and share than my views on the weather.

Children, our greatest teachers. Except when they aren’t.

Far be it for me to wax eloquent about the magic and innocence of children and their banter. Some basic etiquette needs to be taught for a reason.

Like when we met Christine, another neighbour down the road out walking her friendly golden retriever. Trying to follow in my daughter’s footsteps, I also engaged fully and participated in the conversation and registered that her dog, Daisy, is old and can no longer see very well.

While chatting, a mosquito landed on Christine’s leg. She slapped it away and said,

“There’s a bug on me."

“There’s bugs on me too!" my three-year-old shouted in shared excitement. “I have lice in my hair."

I am sure Christine was grateful for the forced social distancing and keeping her fingers crossed that lice can’t jump as far as covid virusescan.

For better or for worse, my three-year-old is now starting to pick up social rules, she’s just about realizing that you can say and do certain things only at home. In many ways, it’s a shame. Even though the world will demand it of her, part of me wants her to never play by any societal rules. But before I can be too saddened by her being forced to adapt to convention, my one-and-a-half-year-old points to Christine’s non-pregnant but perhaps slightly large stomach and shouts, “Baby inside!"

Diksha Basu is the author of The Windfall (Bloomsbury). Her new book, Destination Wedding (Bloomsbury), released on 28 July.

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