JOPLIN, Mo. —
She runs across the yard to me, arms waving and eyes wide -- there’s a story about to unfold. At 4 years old, there’s always a story about to unfold from her lips. Each day is thrillingly filled with enough information and experience to keep her mind spinning out of control. And her mouth follows suit.
“Mama! I, um, I just was over by the ... um ... the forest, and ... and ... and,” she swallows, glancing back toward the fence. “And under the ... the ... that log, well I was there because I followed ... that ... um ... a butterfly ... but it’s gone now and ...” She rolls her hands in circles as if she’s trying to bundle her story into coherence.
I have a feeling I know exactly what she’s trying to say. I can see a turtle’s shell nestled beside a fallen branch. I raise my eyebrows and feel quite ready to offer her experience up in my own words.
“You followed a butterfly to that log and found a turtle hiding beside it?”
It’s on the tip of my tongue. My throat aches with the unsaid sentence. But I resist the urge and hold my patience in check while she continues to falter and ramble toward her roundabout point.
It often goes like this in our household: A child tells a story to an exhausted adult who simply wants to hear the punch line. We’d push the fast forward button if we could, just to save all the stuttery half-words and false starts. But for the storytelling, wondering, dreaming child, there seems only to be slow motion, as my daughter is now demonstrating.
She halts and collects her thoughts, which are spilling willy-nilly from her brain. As I struggle to keep from leading her to the conclusion, I picture those thoughts as headless chickens, flopping and tripping in unchoreographed pandemonium. And as much as it pains me, I don’t rush her into order. Those headless chickens are accomplishing much with their disorder, it turns out.
Stumbling over a straightforward story isn’t a sign of trouble, but a sign that a child’s brain is clicking away at great speed, just as it’s meant to. When kids have trouble spitting out their words, it isn’t because they’re not intelligent enough to speak clearly. It usually isn’t even that they’re not paying attention.
In fact, the way they seem to flounder in their focus is all wrapped up in their brain development. Their thoughts are running on a faster plane than their mouths. Their minds know what’s happening, but their language is slower to develop, so what emerges instead of measured sentences can sometimes be a jumble of starts and stops.
Thoughtful and clever preschoolers need time for their mouths to draw alongside their brains, and the process of weeding out what needs to be said helps train them for that eventuality.
By the time my daughter is in elementary school, I expect that hearing a story about a discovered turtle will take just as long to tell, but will be filled with descriptors and emotions instead of faltering hesitations. We’ll wish for silent breaks then, I’m sure, as nonstop chatter will surely fill every empty moment.
Until then, we wait. Wait for verbosity to catch up to brainpower. For mouths to catch up to language. For headless chickens to line up in logical order.
And for 4-year-olds to finish their stories.
I settle down comfortably, enjoying the play of emotion across my daughter’s face as she recounts her surprise. A turtle discovery has never been so captivating.
Sarah Coyne lives in Joplin. She writes about life and motherhood at her personal blog, http://thisheavenlylife. blogspot.com.