The concept of the movie Baby Geniuses always bothered me, with the idea that children had some kind of telepathic communication that was lost when verbalization began. Rather than seeing talking as a step back from some sort of idealized early childhood of perfect harmony and communication, I have tended to see the period of early childhood where one is unable to communicate verbally as a time of great stress and unhappiness as little ones test their limits in trying to convey to uncomprehending bigger people what they want and how they feel and what sort of help they need at any given moment. Some little babies have specific cries that allow someone to know what they want, and some just howl and make their parents figure out what is wrong through laborious process of elimination in the face of an unhappy little person. Given the rather unhappy nature of my own early childhood, I have often viewed the childhood of others with a sense of concern, enjoying it when children have been peaceful and well-taken care of, and less pleased to see and hear lots of unhappiness from matters that are generally beyond the control of the baby.
Not too long ago I had the chance to visit a home for a planning meeting for the recent senior’s brunch. Being mildly curious about the issue of baby talk, I asked the oldest daughter in the family about her experiences in watching babies and in understanding them, and she noted that she was able to understand what her baby sisters wanted but was not able to understand the young siblings of her friends. This made sense to me, as the communication that small children are often limited to depends highly on observation, watching for the patterns of nonverbal communication that allow someone to get a sense for how someone feels. Those people who well understand my own restrained ways from nonverbal communication are generally those people who have taken a great deal of time to pay attention to me, while the great mass of humanity is highly ignorant of the subterranean life that they have not read nor have taken the time to guess at through close observation. Given that the young lady is an observant person who has a great interest in communication herself, it is likely that if she spent more time with her friends that she would eventually acquire the ability to understand their younger siblings from her own close observation of them.
It should be noted, though, that this is a very slow and inefficient process. For all of the problems of verbal communication, it does allow people the opportunity to have some sort of explicit content to work with that does not require a deep knowledge of the small aspects of body language that demonstrate feelings and thoughts that are left unspoken. For little children there is no choice in the matter–lacking the ability to speak they are forced to communicate as best as possible using cries and nonverbal communication. No one, at least no one with any sense, blames a small child for being hard to understand or for seeking to communicate as they do, and older siblings and parents often develop a great deal of insight in understanding what certain things mean that strangers or acquaintances would simply not pick up on. When we are older, though, our problems with communication become more troublesome, because when we do not or cannot communicate well we force other people to try to guess what we are about, and other people simply are not good at mind-reading.
How can we ensure that we are better at communicating than small children are? This should be an easy task, but it is not always very straightforward, not least because we tend to have an expectation that others pay enough attention to us and have observed us closely enough to have some idea what we are about. This is simply not something that we can assume takes place even if we would want it. If we want to communicate better with others, often we simply need to make the difficult and uncomfortable steps of actually communicating with them, telling them in a kind but plain fashion what it is that we are about, what we want and expect, and what we do not want. Not everyone will respond to our wishes with respect, nor will everyone pay attention to what we say with the sort of focus that we would prefer, but if we do not communicate what is going on inside of us and how others can get along with us we cannot expect them to figure this sort of thing out on their own. It is hard enough for us to know ourselves; to know other people requires a great deal of time and attention that many people simply do not put towards the problem of understanding and getting along with others. We simply take far too much for granted if we are going to expect other people to devote such time to understanding us.
Nevertheless, that does not mean we ought to talk down to our audience and assume that they are entirely clueless and ignorant. When we make the effort to communicate with others, we will often find that other people will do more than meet us halfway. As someone whose communication is often difficult to understand I have been gratified and more than a little alarmed at times to see the efforts that people have made to actually understand the words that are coming out of my mouth. This is not as easy a task as one might hope, given my fondness for foreign languages and for obscure and understated but often precise shades of meaning and the purposeful and deliberate use of unconventional words and expressions. I have never seen it as worthwhile to talk down to babies. I figured that if they were good at understanding tone they would recognize kindly attention and if they really wanted to understand what I was saying they could ask or look up the words, as is a common habit among my friends. When one makes understanding and communication difficult, though, one has to make sure that one’s communication is worth it, since barriers to entry must be amply rewarded by increased profits of insight and enjoyment when they are met. I would hope that is the case with me, and I would hope it is with those little ones who have far less blame than I do in being hard to understand.