"A kid’s hardest task is to learn how to translate their parents’ words into intelligible language. Baffled kids often ask, 'What is my mother saying?'" writes Peggy McKee Barnhill. (Unsplash / Vadim Bogulov)

Gimme a Smile: What is my mother saying?

Kids, let me enlighten you.

Communication is one of the first things a child learns. They realize that crying gets them love and attention, that “no” is the most powerful word there is, and that parents don’t really fall for the “it wasn’t me” defense. But a kid’s hardest task is to learn how to translate their parents’ words into intelligible language. Baffled kids often ask, “What is my mother saying?”

Kids, let me enlighten you.

Sometimes your mother can’t remember the words in the heat of the moment. It’s like playing Mad Libs — you have to discern if Mom is searching for a noun, preposition, or gross bodily function, and then fill in the blank. Or she might substitute one word for another while assuming that you can make the one-to-one translation. In my house yesterday, I confused my son by suggesting he close “that circle thing” in the kitchen, as I watched him making a sandwich directly above the open lazy Susan cabinet. I miscalculated his translation prowess. He had no idea where I was going with “that circle thing,” so I had to translate for him.

Sometimes Mom feels the need to pronounce your first, middle, and last name in rapid succession, usually in a loud, carrying voice. It makes sense. Your parents worked hard coming up with a name especially for you. They probably vetted an array of family names, considering all the negative associations with other family members before choosing to name you after some dead relative. It stands to reason that they will want to proclaim your full name for all to hear. I’m sure it’s a coincidence that this only happens when Mom wants you to know that you are in trouble big time.

Sometimes Mom prefers the Oxford Parental Dictionary’s definitions of words. Kids, you’ll need your advanced translation skills to make sense of what she’s saying. For example, the OPD definition of “maybe” is “absolutely not.” Likewise, the OPD definition of “we’ll see” is “not on your life.” Conversely, the Oxford Parental Dictionary lists multiple definitions of the word “no,” ranging from “no,” to “try again later when I’ve had my coffee,” to “maybe I’ll think about it and change my mind if you just give me time.” To avoid a generational language barrier, kids should assume that Mom’s words have little relation to their accepted English usage.

Sometimes Mom will try to play with words. It’s like playing with fire. She might roll out some lame pun, followed by the inevitable phrase, “no pun intended.” She might try on some current slang, suggesting that you yeet your dirty laundry into the hamper, for example. Or she might trot out an old malapropism from your toddlerhood to amuse your friends with how you loved a peanut butter stand witch for lunch. Kids, just grin and bear it. She’s only embarrassing herself.

Sometimes Mom will reveal her advanced age by using figures of speech that have no meaning in the 21st century. She might tell you to hang up your phone or expect you to search through a bound dictionary to find out the spelling of a word. When she refers to the “card catalog,” she’s not talking about purchasing greeting cards online. When you mention that you need to cut and paste on your homework, she might hand you a pair of scissors and a roll of Scotch tape. Just humor her—she keeps you in touch with your historical roots.

Sometimes Mom just pronounces things wrong. She’s trying to say, “I love you,” but it comes out sounding like, “Clean your room,” or “Time to go to the dentist.” Kids, you need to cut Mom some slack when she struggles with pronunciation like this. Here’s a good rule of thumb: no matter what she says, you can be sure that “I love you” is hidden somewhere in her words.

Deciphering the meanings behind Mom’s words is one of the greatest challenges of the modern world, as kids everywhere seek to answer the burning question, “What is my mother saying?” Good luck kids—you’re going to need it!

• Peggy McKee Barnhill is a wife, mother, and author who writes cozy mysteries under the pen name “Greta McKennan.” She likes to look at the bright side of life.

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