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Your Toddler, Decoded

For years, the members of Vicki Wawrzyniec's family didn't put milk in their cereal. They used "bloke." As in "Could you please pass the bloke?" Or, "Got bloke?" Her son, Nate, started it at age 2: "He had the 'l' and the 'k' but just made up the rest," says Wawrzyniec, a mom of three in Falls Church, Virginia. "His cousins thought it was so funny, and so they used it, too." Thus "bloke" went into the annals of family history.Toddlers are cute when they talk. They're cute when they walk. They're often cute even when they're bad. But why? Mostly it's a case of their skills not having caught up with their ambitions as they learn to navigate the world around them. Each adorable misfire can be a developmental clue, though, and as they wrestle and grow, there are ways you can help:

Madelyn Rosenberg has written for The Roanoke Times and American Journalism Review.

The cute stuff: They say things funny

Many of us adopt at least one word our children create in the early years when they've got "Mommy" and "Daddy" down pat but aren't quite ready to deliver the keynote address at a major convention. Examples are endless. For Ina Zucker, mom of Maxine, in Portland, Oregon, the word was "swergil." "It was much cuter than 'squirrel,'" Zucker says. Cindy May, a mother of two in Arlington, Virginia, loves that her son, Winston, has always been full of great "didillas"  -- his take on "ideas."

What's happening The creation of words involves not only the high-level thinking necessary to translate sounds we hear into sounds we make but also some rather sophisticated dexterity with the tongue and lips. Young kids understand and try to duplicate speech long before they have the physical ability to reproduce what they hear, says Steven Warren, Ph.D., director of the Schiefelbusch Institute for Lifespan Studies at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.

"That's what babbling is about early on," he says. "It's your baby trying to make the sounds she's hearing. And that's why she mispronounces words later on." So if a child like Maxine can't create the combination "k" and "w" sound of the "qu" in squirrel, she'll substitute something else  -- an easier placeholder until her knowledge and motor skills are more complete. When the mouth, lips, and tongue are ready to make the "qu" sound, they will. In the meantime, don't under-estimate the power of a well-placed "w."

How to help Your child hears speech in the house and out of it, so you're not her only language teacher. You likely are her main conversation partner, though, so it's here that you can help her learn to express herself.

The best way to handle common mispronunciations is to show that you understand what your child's trying to say. If you're at the zoo and your child points and yells "Bar!" "you could respond: 'Yes, that's a very big bear,'" Warren says, "expanding the conversation, repeating the word correctly, and making sure your child knows you read her loud and clear." There's no need to focus on your child's error or correct her. She'll get it eventually just by listening to other people. You want to encourage her to feel comfortable saying what's on her mind and in her heart, no matter how she pronounces it.

And there's no harm in adopting the occasional "bloke," either.

The cute stuff: They say amusing things

They find beauty in fungus and wonder in the clouds. Because they're just discovering the world, they have a unique ability to connect ideas and words in unexpected ways. For instance: One afternoon in Dedham, Massachusetts, Emily Michelsen, 2½, noticed her mother wasn't wearing her nursing bra. She paused a minute, watching her baby sister latch on without the familiar unsnapping.

"Who left the milk out?" she said.

Alice Coleman, of Bethesda, Maryland, recalls when her daughter, Brigit, also 2½, regarded her brother's private parts during a diaper change, and then commented: "Penises. They go up, they go down. They go up, they go down. I know a lot about penises."

"You certainly do," Coleman replied (and promptly began worrying about her daughter's teenage years).

What's happening As they acquire language and smarts at the same time, children start to label not just things but feelings, ideas, and theories. (Even before they speak, you might see this new understanding if you watch for it.)

Sometimes a toddler's observation about a situation is merely the most obvious. Penises do, in fact, go up and down, but adults tend not to mention that kind of thing. Kids, who have little experience or grasp of cultural norms, are willing to say what we only think, and this willingness almost gives their utterances a philosophical profundity. And isn't the best philosophy often the simplest?

How to help As your child's language skills develop, the best thing you can do, again, is to be a good conversational partner. "Talk with them about what they're interested in," Warren says. "But let them lead." Your job is to provide a little of the context your child's missing and to help him take his observations to the next level. Ask open-ended questions and show that you're listening to the answers. It's fine to laugh if your child says something unintentionally funny, but make it clear that you're not laughing at him.

And read together. That helps children understand words, even if they can't yet say them, and it helps them understand meanings they can't express.

The cute stuff: They're klutzy

Toddlers actually seem to think that they can become airborne with both of their feet still on the ground. The variants on human locomotion they come up with when they try to skip can be quite amusing. And they routinely wink by closing both of their eyes. Is there anything more adorable than watching our children proudly show off their "mastery" over their small bodies?

What's happening "In the beginning, the littlest things, like picking up a dropped Cheerio from the floor, are whole-body efforts," says Holly Brophy-Herb, Ph.D., an associate professor of child development at Michigan State University in East Lansing. "It's legs wide apart, maneuvering down to the ground, and balancing while they reach an arm out."

Learning motor skills, like running, winking, and jumping, can be divided into a series of stages, so it's easy to watch your child's progress. "What you're seeing when your toddler jumps without leaving the ground is the first half of the sequence," Brophy-Herb explains. Your child knows there are certain body motions that will make it happen but doesn't know how to combine them for the right effect.

Young children's legs are short. Their heads are big, their bellies are round, and their spinal cords are weak. So they toddle. As their legs get longer and their muscles grow stronger -- closer to the age of 3 -- some of that cute clumsiness goes away. As they practice and watch bigger kids, they refine the motions. Then one day, they get some air.

How to help Give your child the opportunities she needs to learn how to use her body. To find out what she can and can't do, you'll have to let her goof up without trying to protect her from every spill or failure.

For large motor skills, just go for a walk, play outside, roll a ball back and forth. Let your child run around on the grass and fall down. She'll learn fine motor skills playing with blocks, dolls, and Legos, but you can also include her in household tasks.

"I give my two-year-old small towels and she 'folds' them," Brophy-Herb says. "I have to redo them later, but she doesn't know that." Besides giving her practice using and controlling muscles in her hands and fingers, it also lets Sophia know she's a needed member of the family.

When your child's working on any task, big or small, be patient. "It's so easy when I'm trying to get out the door in the morning to rush my child as she's struggling to put on a coat," Brophy-Herb says. But it's important for toddlers to feel they can do things themselves. If you can't spare the time then, let her play around with some clothes later.

The cute stuff: They take everything literally

Shari Seymour, her husband, Don, and their daughter, Alison, then 2½, were heading to a mall in Brookeville, Maryland, when another car cut them off. "Don had to slam on his brakes to keep from hitting the guy," Seymour recalls, and he instantly turned red with anger.

"You turkey!" he yelled.

Almost immediately Ali corrected him. "Daddy, that is not a turkey," she said. "That'a man!"

What's happening One reason toddlers start out taking things so literally, Warren says, is simply because they believe adults. "Their hypothesis is that people are always telling them the truth. They don't know better yet." Learning the nuances of language takes time. Those nuances are so subtle, you're still catching on to them. We learn to correlate words with facial expressions. We learn to pick up on sarcasm and double meanings. Children are trying to do exactly that, but without decades of experience. Until children realize that speech is full of expressions, double meanings, sarcasm  -- and even lies  -- they're open to the kinds of misunderstandings that make us chuckle. For the same reason, they might find a seemingly innocuous phrase (like "You turkey!") to be riotously funny. They don't catch the double meaning, but love the absurdity.

How to help Explain tricky ways we use language when examples come up. And they will come up, over and over. But for the most part, a toddler's experiences teach him: This is a joke, this is an expression, this is a metaphor, this is a lie. "It's a process kids have to discover over time," Warren says. "Stories and even TV can be useful. They hear language and how it's used."

The cute stuff: They imitate you

Children fill sippy cups with "coffee." "Not now," they tell us, "I'm on the phone." They ride tricycles to meetings and nurse their dolls. Wawrzyniec's daughter, Annie, 2, sits next to her at bill time and lifts each envelope off the stack. She frowns, then taps her chin with her finger. "Hmm," she says. "Hmm." Making it all the more silly  -- and yes, achingly, painfully cute  -- is that they take it so seriously.

What's happening "Kids do all of that as a way of understanding 'This is my family, and this is what we do in my family,'" Brophy-Herb says. Your child uses play to figure out how the world works. "If Daddy pours coffee in the morning, the toddler imitates it. It's a way of saying, 'This must be what it means to get up in the morning,'" says Brophy-Herb.

Also, part of imitation is what Brophy-Herb calls "socio-emotional." Your child wants to please you. "So what does she do? She imitates. It's her way of displaying admiration and affection for you."

As they play, children experiment with the language they hear. For those of us listening in, it can be a good reality check. When my son's blue train engine starts shrieking, "Stop that this instant!" a little too frequently, I know I need to work on my volume control. But when my son covers his trains with a blanket, kisses their smokestacks, and says, "Now you're all snug!" I know I'm doing something right. As they get out in the world more, this kind of play mimicry is likely to expand to include teachers, TV characters, and other adults. They also begin to emulate other kids  -- the precursor to adolescent conformity.

How to help Through imaginary play, your kids are learning, reasoning, and problem solving. They're expressing hopes and fears. The best thing you can do is to provide lots of opportunity for that play to take place and let your child take the lead. "Toddlers, even without many words, can tell you how they want to play," says Brophy-Herb. "They're playing for a reason, and if you let them have that control, it puts you in a great position to see what they're wrestling with in their heads." Besides, if you watch closely, they're bound to do something really cute.