“Do you want some I-C-E-C-R-E-A-M?”
This is a line of dialogue pulled directly from a recent dinner table conversation. Outside ears might have thought The Wife and I were training for a spelling bee or a Scrabble tournament.
Actually, we were masking our dessert options. The mere mention of the word “ice cream” sends my two sons into a frenzy. Their tiny ears perk up like a hungry dog that’s just heard someone rustling in his bag of Eukanuba.
Had I actually said, “Do you want some ice cream,” my 2 ½-year-old son, Bubba, and his 16-month-old brother, Peter, would have immediately ceased eating their hot dogs. Then, they’d have insisted on moving directly to dessert. Any delay would result in tears and pouty lower lips.
I’m not alone in employing this not-so-secret code. Plenty of parents are forced to spell out words or use other creative methods when talking to fellow adults without keying in the kids.
During a recent play date, one parent asked me if I wanted to take the kids to the P-A-R-K. It was a wise move. We decided not to go. Had the kids been included in the conversation, we would have likely been nagged into submission, despite the cold, windy conditions.
I wondered how long I could use this common code before the kids figured it out. Bubba is years away from his first spelling test, but perhaps hearing things like C-A-K-E and C-O-O-K-I-E-S would make him a child prodigy.
I called Catherine Balthazar at Governors State University to find out more. Balthazar teaches courses on communication disorders at the small school in suburban Chicago. She’s also a mom with first-hand knowledge of the language parents use around children.
“Kids catch on pretty quickly. They will begin to pay close attention whenever you begin to spell things,” she warned.
Balthazar’s parents used another method to create some linguistic privacy. They’d use big words. Instead of saying “ice cream,” her parents throw off the children by saying, “frozen dairy product.” To this day, Balthazar credits the approach with improving her vocabulary.
I’ve used a similar method when talking about various places. While riding in the minivan, I wouldn’t dare ask The Wife if she wanted to go to “Papa’s house” or “McDonalds.” Just hearing those words is bound to get my boys bouncing in their car seats.
Instead, it’s better to say, “Do you want to eat at that place on corner of 119th Street and Western Avenue?” Maybe this approach will help my sons will grow up to be good at giving driving directions.
Another part of the parent code is masking things kids might consider unpleasant. For example, I often serve “raisin doughnuts” for breakfast. Actually, I’m serving cinnamon-raisin bagels, but Bubba and Peter are much more inclined to scarf-up the meal when I tweak the name.
In high school, I remember eating cheese-and-sausage pizza at a friend’s house. But, they offered the picky-eating toddler at the table “chicken pizza.”
“Is this really chicken pizza?” I asked and was immediately shot the evil eye.
I would never make that mistake now. The parent code is easy to pick up. Though it does have its limitations. What if I want to watch “TV” and eat “M&M’s?”
Good luck spelling your way out of that one.
Image credit: B S K, SXC
Howard Ludwig is a former business writer who traded his reporter’s notebook for a diaper bag, becoming a stay-at-home dad.