Communication is Messy: What We Can Learn From a Toddler About Communication

Dan Bolton



This past weekend I noticed an interaction between a child and his mother that captured my attention, reminding me of an important lesson about communication. The interaction I’m about to describe is something I encounter in my work regularly with clients of all ages (adults included!), though not always as simple as this example. Yet despite my best efforts to teach people how to avoid it, it can elude even the most well-intentioned. This leads me to believe that it is just one of those challenging aspects of the human condition that isn’t going to go away overnight. I will get right to what I observed, then explain some of my reasoning about its relevance.


A toddler was standing on the porch as his mother walked around the side of the house. The boy started saying “Poopy Diaper, Poopy Diaper...” Before this the child was calm, showing no signs that anything was a problem. This led me to believe that what the child was actually communicating was not that he had pooped his diaper and needed to be changed, but that he started feeling that he was about to and was trying to tell his mother that he needed to go to the bathroom. As he was not of the age that he could take care of this business himself, he was calling to his mother for help. To this child “Poopy Diaper” did not correspond to the same meaning adults ascribe to “Poopy Diaper” (a diaper that had been pooped in, or even the mis-statement of a sentence describing that he had pooped his diaper). Due to a misunderstanding of the way in which her child was using language, the mother went about her business, missing the urgency that her child seemed to be trying to convey. I am sure she heard him, but she likely figured that if he had already pooped his diaper, what was done was done. She probably felt she could finish her own business and change the diaper afterward, not realizing that she could have avoided having to clean up such a mess in the first place. Plus, she completely missed out on a great potty training success for her son if she had gotten him to his potty in time! 


The mistake most adults make is believing that children are using language in the same way, and with the same complexity of meaning, that they do. This is a simplistic example of how miscommunications occur. However, I think that because it is so simplistic it can be instructive in thinking about and breaking down other more complex interactions in which this type of miscommunication occurs. 


Using the same word/shared language does not guarantee that each person is conveying or communicating the same thing. This can be true, and often is, for communication between adults. This is basically what Lacan meant by the statement, “There is no sexual relationship” (and also why books like “The 5 Love Languages” are best sellers). People are infinitely different, and even in the circumstance of the most clear of communication, there will inevitably be some difference in what or how something was understood. Just as telepathy does not exist, neither does perfect communication, which is why the goal should be to come to some shared understanding.


One common example that comes to mind is when someone muffs the meaning of a word. The best personal example I have is when I was studying for the GRE in college and was memorizing lists of really big words for the analogy section of the test. A student in one of my communications classes used the word ‘cogent’ to try to explain something as ‘really profound.’ If I had not repeatedly studied that exact word on one of my flashcards I would have missed that the word was not used properly, and since it sounded cool I probably would have taken it as my own and gone about misusing the word ‘cogent,’ spreading misunderstanding until I embarrassed myself in front of someone who actually did know it’s meaning. But, because I did know it,  it was clear to me that he was not talking about something pertinent or relevant, as the word ‘cogent’ really means, but  probably felt smart using such an erudite word. I have been guilty of this as well. WE ALL HAVE! (Hmmm, I better go look up ‘erudite.’)


So, my point: language and words does not a complete communication make! This seems so simple, yet, we so frequently become impatient with others when they do not understand something the same way we understand it. Adults become impatient with kids when they misuse language, sometimes accusing them of lying (though they really may have been trying out some new fancy words and were not clear about what they were saying). Or, when kids do not understand something they have said, adults become insistent that the child understood, though the child very well may have not. I am not saying that kids do not lie or do not misbehave despite hearing and understanding what the adult has said, and gone against their parents word anyway. Children do, and in those situations, as adults, we have the power either to make children feel bad about about themselves for making a mistake or provide them a vital life lesson by turning their mistake into a teaching moment. All I am suggesting is that we  take a moment to take a closer look at how we communicate and an even closer look at how the other person may have heard or understood what we communicated, putting our presumptions aside.