Overgeneralisation: the Girl strips English of excess words



I loved essay writing – in school, at uni – but I was never very good at handling “constructive criticism”. I would always get defensive and want to explain and justify myself so the teacher/tutor would understand that really I was brilliant and beyond reproach. (Hm I wonder why I write a blog…?)

A recurring theme in my feedback was overgeneralising and hyperbole. I’d make sweeping statements for effect and claim that ‘everyone felt the same fear of death’ (for instance). A piece of feedback that I have treasured for both the compliment and its cutting wit, called my analysis of Plato’s theory of forms: “A marvellous essay, marred only by a tendency to pointless overstatement.” I like to think of this as a tagline for the story of my life.

Now, my 16 month old daughter is experimenting with sweeping statements. I know that overgeneralisation is a natural stage in child language acquisition, but she is taking it to a whole new level. As soon as she discovers a new word, she goes in search of what else you can do with it. Rather than finding out how we, experienced speakers of the English language, define this new word, she sets about delimiting it herself, expecting us to keep up as she rewrites the dictionary. Or rather, rips most of the pages out to slim it down a little.

After her first word (Daddy), she discovered ‘down’. This meant: “I want to get down” but was soon expanded to mean “pick me up”, “get me out of these straps”, “lift me out of the cot” and “I want to go downstairs and watch television”. Perhaps this word is best summed up as: “Move me to where I want to be.”

Her favourite word must be “zhuzh”. This was first said with great delight while pointing at her own shoes, and later when carrying Daddy’s shoes to him to indicate that he must come on the outing too. Then it was said pointing at boots and wellies. Then it turned out to mean socks, feet and toes as well.

I kept nodding and thinking: this is textbook stuff. She is learning to assign characteristics to words. For example, “Teddy” to her means anything inanimate and huggable. She will hug any soft toy – rabbit, raccoon, pony – and say “Teddy!” What is supposed to happen next is that she will start to notice that the people around her limit the word to the bear only and have different names for the other cuddly toys. Then she might add a further note to her internal lexicon:

Teddy: inanimate, huggable, bear shaped

Also cheezh

Also cheezh

But I got a bit suspicious when the word “juuzh” showed up. It rhymed with “zhuzh”, which perhaps explained its appeal. “Juice” has been said while pointing at any bottle, any carton, any jug, any glass (full or empty), her sippy cup, water, milk, cups of tea, wine… Then came “cheezh”. She first said it while hunting through the food cupboard – which is most definitely not where I keep the cheese. I thought: maybe she means Shreddies? Cheerios? But I was soon set straight: she greets any food with a joyful shout of “cheezh!”

This is overgeneralisation taken to a bit of an extreme. I’m sure the Boy used quite a few, if not most of his words at this age, for fairly specific things.

Perhaps she is just not a details-girl. Perhaps the Girl is quite happy to paint life in broad brush strokes. She is not learning words. She is learning categories.

Even “mama” is not for me alone. I was overjoyed when she started using the name to call for me over the Christmas holidays, but when the Lodger returned from a visit to her family, she was greeted with “mama” as well, and so was my friend who looks after her on a Friday. It is clearly the umbrella term for “female who can provide me with soothing cuddles who has nice long hair I can twizzle”.

Her latest category was a source of great delight to the Boy. She pointed at a number in one of his endless number books and shouted: “Eight!”

“YES!” the Boy exclaimed, “Eight! Haha! A. is saying eight!”

Then she pointed at a 4: “Eight!” And a 9: “Eight!” Number 2 was also eight. The Boy thought it was hilarious. But she wasn’t done there. The alphabet puzzle got the “eight” treatment as well, and Surrogate Friday Mama reported that the Girl had been pointing at a handwritten note saying “eight”. We concluded it must mean “squiggle”.

It is just Daddy who gets exclusive rights to his name. She stops in her tracks when there is a sound at the front door. “Daddy!” If we walk past the study after her lunch time nap and the door is ajar, she will peek inside: “Daddy?”

I comfort myself with the thought that at least it sounds a lot like “teddy”, so there can be just as many embarrassing no-that-was-not-who-i-wanted mix ups.

Sixteen months into life, 5 months or so into discovering words, our marvellous Girl sweeps through life using only a handful of words. She doesn’t need any more. She defines them. The world is hers to shape and control.

And that is most definitely not pointless overstatement.

Definitely cheezh

Definitely cheezh




I had an Assertiveness Fail the other day (Forgot to take the skill back at Level 15, I think). I took the Boy to have a very necessary hair cut at a Salon-Which-Shall-Be-Nameless near Gran’s house. We were asked on the phone whether we had a favourite hairdresser, but as we’d only taken him there once before and had neglected to commit the name of the lady to memory we just said we’d be happy with anyone.

So that is who we got.

The hairdresser in question was very lovely but did not seem very confident or competent. She would ask me questions about my wishes, and when I explained them (very apologetically of course – like I said, assertiveness is not my top skill), she would tell me why she couldn’t do that.

Cutting his hair short around his ear? “When they’re this little you don’t want to cut too close to their head, or you might hurt them.”

Inner-Judith said: “Oh really? Then why has every other hairdresser who has cut his hair before managed it??

In reality I said: “Hm.”

When I wasn’t sure if I wanted his fringe “straight” (it sounded a bit severe), the only other option she suggested was cutting it at a fashionable slant to one side.

Inner-Judith said: “That sounds ridiculous. I am sure there must be more options than just those two.”

In reality I said: “Erm, cut it straight then.”

I was right. It did look a bit severe.

new haircut

When she thought she was done, the fringe still skimmed his eyebrows. I asked if she could take a bit more off, just to give me more time between hair cuts. “I’ll cut it a little bit shorter, but you don’t want to take too much off, or you might accidentally cut the child” she warned once more.

Inner-Judith said: “What the hell kind of incompetent hairdresser are you??”

In reality I said: “Okay.”

I think she could hear faint echoes of Inner-Judith’s raging, because she asked me about five more times if I was sure I was happy. To be honest, I had no faith that she could do a better job than she had done, so I just paid the money and got the hell out. But not before asking her name and committing it to memory, so that I could specify that I wanted someone else next time.

And The Girl? She won’t be having a haircut for quite some time. I am far too delighted with her new little girl hair, which seems to grow an extra centimetre every night.

Here is a little overview of her lovely hair and the hair styles I have been trying out on her – most of which last about five minutes until she has worked out how to undo/remove them.

Unadorned, it seems to grow naturally in quite a charming bob

Unadorned, it seems to grow naturally in quite a charming bob

Her first ever hair clip was almost too cute to be allowed

Her first ever hair clip was almost too cute to be allowed

She usually keeps them in for about five minutes before pulling them out and starting to chew on them (DANGER!)

She usually keeps them in for about five minutes before pulling them out and starting to chew on them (DANGER!)

First bunches. These lasted about ten minutes.

First bunches. These lasted about ten minutes.

Exclamation mark hair. This one took her about an hour to undo.

Exclamation mark hair. This one took her about an hour to undo.

But her favourite so far has been this hairband, which she stole/borrowed from her best friend

But her favourite so far has been this hairband, which she stole/borrowed from her best friend. This one I had to remove myself because she was going to wear it FOREVER


Putting clips and things in the Girl’s hair has made me face up to the fact that she is a proper toddler now and no longer a baby. You look at her with her hair in bunches and there she is: vivacious, mischievous, full of life and joy and determination. There is something about these new hair styles that makes them real little people. I have always loved the new Boy after he has had his hair cut, because cutting away the excess always reveals how much he has grown up. Suddenly, he looks more serious and wise. Possibly a little like a tiny accountant.

He loves it too – although he may be slightly confused about both the purpose and the potential end result of the exercise:

“I have my hair cut!” he kept telling me proudly on the way to the salon. “I have new curly hair.”

To be honest, I wouldn’t have put it past the hairdresser. Maybe next time.

How to survive Witching Hour

For the past 3 years, the time between 4pm and 6pm has been a time of pain, optimistically referred to as Witching Hour. The children have varied their programme a little depending on their age and whether it was just one or two of them, but it always includes at least non-stop crying and wailing, and there are usually some completely avoidable injuries, arguments and tantrums. Anything, in short, to stop you getting on with bringing about the natural end to this time, which is dinner and bed.

I don’t know if it ever stops. I’m hoping around the teenage years dinner time might no longer be preceded by screams and wailing, possibly because loud and non-inter-generationally-transferable music translates these feelings for your children and provides some catharsis. (Parents of teens feel free to set me straight)

But in gloomy moments I suspect that it just carries on and on, with different age-appropriate flavours. The truth of the matter is that 4pm is a long way from lunch and a long way from dinner, a natural dip in the day when we’d all quite like a nap but either can’t have one because we have stuff to do or because we would rather die than admit it because sleep is clearly a weakness. In fact, I myself wouldn’t mind rolling around on the floor crying and tearing my hair out around this time of day.

Actually, yesterday I kind of did.

Wound up from trying to chop vegetables and wash dishes with two children clinging to my legs singing a piercing chorus of “we are sad”, I gave up and went into the dining room and sat down on the floor. They followed me. Propelled by a tiny flicker of mother’s instinct, I opened my arms and they promptly ran into them. There we sat for about ten minutes, rocking in a strange sort of see-sawing hug. They were in seventh heaven. They laughed and giggled and clung to me.

It suddenly occurred to me that I had got it all wrong. It wasn’t Witching Hour at all. It was Cuddle Hour. They had been playing all day, going about their own projects, and now they were tired and hungry and all they wanted was to come and crawl onto Mummy’s lap and be close.

My daughter sucked her favourite fingers and leaned her head against my knee. My son clutched me close and giggled that infuriating over-tired giggle as he rocked us all back and forth. There was peace.

I held on to that moment for a few more minutes and then extricated myself to rescue dinner and the crying and wailing resumed. It wasn’t long before I got more and more annoyed and started getting angry and shouting, making everything worse in the process until I practically slammed the bowls of pasta on the table, put them in their seats and had to take a moment alone in the kitchen to cool down.

A training course I did once taught me the cause of anger: blocked goals. You have plans, people get in the way of your plans and so you get angry at them. My goal: wash up, make dinner, get the kids to bed as soon as humanly possible, sneakily eat some crisps in the kitchen while they’re not looking, squeeze in some marking while the sauce is bubbling. The cooking is blocked by a loudly wailing Girl clinging to my leg, demanding to be picked up. Washing up is impossible while holding a toddler and fielding demands for snacks from a little boy. You can’t do marking when someone is constantly trying to invent new circus tricks involving balancing across your legs. Doing any sneaky eating in the kitchen is pretty much out when you are being followed around absolutely everywhere by adoring fans/supplicants.

So what do you do? How can this ever be a happy time of day?

I thought of our little moment earlier. There is a glimmer of hope, I thought. Peace is possible.

As I can’t change anyone other than myself and I have no right to try and control anyone else, the only thing I can do is change my goals.

I can accept that 4-6pm is not Haute Cuisine Time. It is not Work Time. It is not Internet Time. It is not Housework Time. It is not even Witching Hour. It is Cuddle Hour. Time to give the kids maximum attention, endless hugs, join in their jokes, let them help with setting the table. Then heat up previously cooked food – the microwave can be operated with one hand after all. Magnificent meals should be cooked earlier in the day or after the kids have gone to bed – this is not the time.

The thing is: need Cuddle Hour. All I want by 4pm is to curl up on the sofa under a blanket with my favourite people and have a little snooze while the Girl laughs and pokes me in the face to wake me up again. Maybe they know and that is why they chase after me, arms outstretched.

“Uh oh, it’s Witching Hour. We have to do something,” the Boy might say to the Girl. “We need to catch Mummy and give her hugs.”

“Yeah,” the Girl probably replies. “Dop. Ah! Ooooo.” Meaning: perhaps it will stop all the screaming and shouting at this time of day. It is really getting on my nerves.

Dawn of a New Era: Pre-School

20140106-223756.jpgSunday evening, five to midnight, found me learning a new skill. I was attempting to write my son’s name in biro on tiny white spaces on the washing/brand labels in his clothing. I discovered:

* labels don’t stay put while you are writing on them
* trying to keep them in one place means your fingers are taking up 2/3 of the available space to write on
* most labels somehow magically prevent loops and up-strokes, allowing only a kind of katakana-capital-letter-hieroglyphic writing

I also put his name on a tired tupperware pot filled with three (3) mini rice cakes (apple flavour), one (1) dried apricot, a little pack of raisins and a broken Jacobs Water cracker. I learned another lesson when I examined the pot again in the morning: you don’t put dried fruit and crumbly crackers in the same pot as they amalgamate into a new and unappetising species overnight.

I filled in all the forms, and discovered – too late – that I should have photocopied his birth certificate. Which also meant finding his birth certificate. I decided this would just have to wait a few more days.

Then, I did the washing up.

Then I had run out of busy work and had to stop and realise: my son was going to start pre-school in the morning. Every morning. From now on until eternity.

I suddenly understood why I had been feeling so sad all day. Optimist that I am, up to that point I had only been looking at the advantages and benefits of having mornings free of increasingly articulate demands for snacks, Team Umizoomi and general undivided attention; free of trying to tactfully break up tiny-toddler-crushing hugs that are meant well but could cause serious injury, possibly death; free of constant denial for the need of a toilet trip, followed by yet another clean pair of trousers and another load of washing to put on; free of sudden rage, tears, remorse, saying sorry, then juice and hugs (and that is just me). In short, mornings when my confident, independent little girl can play and then (blissfully) nap, while I do freelance work, lesson prep and writing. It had all sounded so good up until then. But suddenly it hit me that these would also be mornings without sudden sneak attacks of affection, without puzzles and games with a little boy that gets these things now, without a window into his hilarious imagination, without a little voice at my elbow, offering to help me with the chores.

I smoothed his labelled clothes once more, added another few pairs of clean underpants to his George Pig backpack and went to bed. All night I had anxiety dreams in which I just could not leave the pre-school, or had said I would look after a friend’s child at the same school but lost him, and most importantly, in which I had forgotten to label an essential item of clothing.

At 6.45, the Boy woke up full of excitement, untroubled by visions of disaster. He was looking forward to school. Once we arrived he headed straight for the sand table and barely looked up when I said goodbye.

Happy feet, dancing in Happyland

Happy feet, dancing in Happyland

At home, time passed quickly. The Girl kicked off her “zhuzh” with a little cry of glee and ran from toy to toy, unable to decide which one to play with first now that no one was about to snatch them off her. In fact, she did an adorable little dance in the centre of the room, which I freely interpreted as her Happy Dance, to celebrate a brother-free morning. After a little play and a snack, I put her down for a (very) early nap and did a good hour of work. Before I knew it, it was time to collect the Boy again.

He was touchingly delighted to see us. He ran into my arms, then hugged and hugged his sister and gave her kisses. He had had a wonderful time but was pleased that we were back.

Tomorrow, we do the whole thing again. And the day after and the day after that.

The whole thing feels strange, like I have forgotten something – left my wallet at home, or my shoes in the car. The house is eerily quiet. The Numberjacks lie on the sofa, lifeless, just toys now. The TV is off.

So I sit at my laptop, doing work, sipping a hot cup of tea, and grieving. It’s only the morning, only a few hours that pass in a flash. And yet, I feel like I have lost my shadow.