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Tales from the Backseat

Tales from the Backseat sounds like a great book title. Someday maybe I’ll write it because I have a lot of anecdotes related to conversations that come from the back seat of my car over the years. I guess all parents have those but here’s a good one to show how speech & language skills are often not enough for effective communication. If you haven’t been following you may have missed the last blog post about concerns about conversation and social skills in our youth. This story is an example of a ridiculous miscommunication that shows the importance of being able to take another’s perspective.

Taking another’s perspective is one small but powerful aspect of Theory of Mind.

So, back to the scene….

There we were in the car on the way to the tree farm to cut our Christmas tree. My son, 11 years old at the time, asks

“Mom, where are we going to put the tree this year?”

I reply In front of the window (which is the same place we ALWAYS put our tree but I didn’t mention that outside of my own head). That’s the thing with language and meta-linguistics, we can think about our own thinking and talking without saying it aloud. Theory of Mind is very much related to taking another’s point of view and understanding your listeners’ informational needs. Anyway, I thought the tree placement question was asked and answered and done. NOT so easy….

My son asks “Where????”

At this point I thought maybe he didn’t hear me so I repeat myself with a bit more emphasis

“In FRONT of the window”.

Now he says “I don’t understand”.

Well, how could he not understand that? He’s 11 and “in front of the window” doesn’t seem like a complicated sentence. NOW I don’t understand why he doesn’t understand and I don’t know how to say this in another way.

I reply “What is difficult to understand I said we will put the tree IN….FRONT….OF….THE….WINDOW”.

To my pure confusion

he says “I heard you say that but how are we going to see outside”.

Now I’m thinking this whole conversation is just weird.

I ask “It’s never been a problem before, light still comes in and it’s only temporary so why are you concerned about that?”.

The conversations STILL doesn’t end as he states

“Mom, It just doesn’t feel safe to me and I think we should find a different spot for the tree”.

Only in the mind of a child or out of the mouth of babes!! I’m really trying my best to understand his thinking but what is going on here? I don’t understand the questions, the problem or any of this. How could we each be talking in the same language and understanding the words but still not know what we were talking about?

Slowly as this story continues it hits me. We were having 2 different conversations at the same time!

Eventually he says “Mom, we have a different car this year”.

This statement doesn’t even fit in the conversation I was having about the tree placement but I was grateful to end THAT one because it was going nowhere anyway. So I chime in with the new topic.

Oh yea, I forgot we changed cars last spring, I’m happy with that decision. I’m curious what made you think about that now?”

And here it is…..the mystery of the previous conversation solved……my son replies

“Well, last year we put the tree between the seats and this year I don’t know where we are going to put the tree and it really isn’t safe to drive with it in front of the window”.

For a split second I think “Why would he think we are going to put the tree in front of the windshield, after all we wouldn’t be able to see out and wouldn’t that be dangerous?”. As I finished that thought I finally arrived at the beginning of my son’s conversation.

Apparently he had half the conversation in his mind and I was late to the party. As a listener, I needed more information. As a speaker he assumed I was thinking the same way he was. THERE it is, our words sounded like we were having the same conversation about the tree but our minds were not on the same page. Without the full context we both had different beliefs in our minds.

Sometimes even when it seems that you are understanding the words there is more context or backstory needed to FULLY understand.

After I understood the actual intent of the question of “Mom, where are we going to put the tree?”

I said “How would I know when you asked about where to put the tree that you meant on the way home from the farm?”

Quite innocently he replied “Mom, we are IN the car on the way to the farm to GET A TREE, why would you think I was talking about anything else?” Out of the mouth of babes!!! Of course, why would I think anything else?

This year we have a new house, I wonder where we put the tree? LOL!

The next several posts will be a series related to the importance Theory of Mind and implications for communication when there are delays or deficits. Follow us by subscribing on the right margin to get updates when new posts are added.

We’d love to hear your stories too, feel free to add in the comment section.

Pamela Talbot

Pamela is an ASHA certified Speech-Language Pathologist dually certified as a teacher of the hearing impaired. She is a Listening and Spoken Language LSLS-AVT. Pamela has extensive experience training parents and professionals at the international level.