I think young children who are just learning how to articulate thoughts and express their feelings are often treated as if they didn’t understand anything that’s going on. The truth is that children as young as my almost two-year-old son comprehend much more than what we give them credit for. I’m not even going to go into psychological research but will limit myself to tell you about my personal experience and why it almost bothers me when my husband thinks that they don’t understand what he’s saying when he’s explaining to them mundane things like getting the oil changed in the car or why we can’t go see their grandparents because they live a couple plane rides away.
I can relate to my children because I remember when I was learning English, I understood entire conversations and complicated concepts. I just lacked the vocabulary and language skills to participate in the conversation. I see how their little eyes give full attention to the world around them and how after observing a situation for a while, they understand what is taking place.
My favorite example is their cultural navigation skills. Even at their young ages, my children are able to discern which group of people we are spending time with and what are the social expectations withing it. They know that when we are around our playgroup in English we are to be cordial and greet everybody but to be mindful of everyone’s personal space -this doesn’t mean that they don’t hug their little friends. They also know that we would be speaking to our friends in English.
In contrast, when we are with my playgroup in Spanish, they know that the expectation is to say hello to all the moms individually and to kiss them on the cheek as a form of greeting (it doesn’t always happen but they know that’s something they should do). They speak to the adults and at least among the both of them in Spanish. They know that when we are with this group of people, we are close in physical proximity and that hugs and kisses are an expectation.
When I see my children switching from the Arabic/Latino mode to their American ways I cannot help it but to marvel at their ability to keep up with the cultural changes of our different group of friends. It is even more interesting to me to observe this happening because not once have I given them any instructions of the way they are supposed to interact with each group. I have never told them that there are things that we do with one group that we don’t do with the other, yet, they act in the appropriate way with the corresponding group (most of the time).
They listen, they observe, they learn and they apply their new abilities -most of the time in the appropriate way. They may be little and have a scarce vocabulary, but toddlers and preschoolers are equipped with a special compass to help them navigate the world around them.