“Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.” -Rita Mae Brown
Among the most distinctive aspects of being a part of the Cottage community is the way we talk to each other, and we call it “Cottage Speak”. Probably if you have spent any length of time with us, you have found yourself saying, “what’s your plan?”, not just to your child but to your spouse. It’s funny when you hear yourself do it at first, and maybe you say it with air quotes and a chuckle. But actually, we say it because we communicate some of our foundational values in that one short phrase.
Fundamentally, our use of “what’s your plan?” communicates that we are without judgement. We see that some action is about to take place, and we are curious and observant in noticing. We have kept in reserve our long experience, that tells us how we think this idea is going to turn out. We have checked our overblown safety concerns and we trust you with your own body. We acknowledge that, as much as we know, we can’t know the intention in another person’s mind. We admit that you might have an idea we have never thought about before. So we ask, “what’s your plan?”, and then we actively listen to learn what’s happening for the speaker.
Maybe you can already see why that phrase is sometimes used as a laugh line among us: I have heard us say it jokingly (to another adult) when we are full of judgement, we think we know all about what’s going on, and we don’t trust the intention. As adults, we permit ourselves some wiggle room toward each other with regard to respectful language. Kids are very literal. And so one of the hallmarks of our community is consistently demonstrating respect for our youngest members. That’s how we teach it. “What’s your plan?” says to a child, I am open to hearing your idea. I trust you. You are honorable, creative, and worthy of my respect.
Another feature of Cottage Speak that I find noteworthy is the way we respond to a child who is showing us something, be it a new trick, or a drawing, or a block structure. Out there in the world, you are most likely to hear, “good job!”, a well intentioned shorthand that nevertheless falls short of conveying our collective values. “Good job!” allows the adult to assign value to a child’s work. It implies that the child needs approval to know that they have achieved a desired result. At Cottage, we emphasize process over product. We value each child’s development at their own pace. We want children to evaluate their own work, be able to notice their own progress and growth. We know that our children are not here to please us, meeting our standards on our time line. We know that our children are autonomous human beings, right from birth, who are learning all the time, and will be able to do all the things we learned to do as children in their own time.
So instead, we say things like, “I saw you working hard on that!”, to acknowledge their persistence. We can ask what a child thinks about what they have just made, or tried, or achieved. We say, “tell me about what you made”, instead of plastering our own labels all over their work or evaluating it against a measure of success that we can’t know (is it a tall building? Nope, it was a self portrait, and you just guessed wrong, signaling that it was not vey effective). Most simply, we might just say, “I see you!”, a quick yet completely thorough acknowledgement to a child working on climbing the slide or pumping on the swings.
A strong current in our collective lexicon is observational language. We speak with intention, sharing what we are observing, while withholding judgment and labels. One of the clearest examples of this way of speaking is in how we respond to a child who has tripped and fallen. Commonly, out in the world, adults respond in one of two ways: we run over with distress written all over our face, frantically asking if the child is okay, what hurts, and how we can help, or else we stand by, instructing the child to get up, and tell them that they are okay. Both of those responses are well intentioned in trying to teach kids how to react to life’s bumps and bruises, but both ways in effect have the adult telling the child how to feel.
We trust children that they already have their own feelings, that’s not something an adult needs to provide. We just help a child name their feelings. We give them the tools to communicate their reality. So when a child falls, we might simply say, “you fell”. That lets the child know that we saw what happened, and that we are there if they need us. It leaves space for the child to check and evaluate their own body and emotions, to see if any part of them needs care. It teaches body autonomy.
When a child falls, most of the time, they immediately look up to find an adult and make eye contact. If I am that adult, and I say, “you fell”, the child usually gets up, dusts off, and gives me a brief report (“I’m okay”, or “I scraped my leg right there, see?”). But sometimes, the child bursts into tears there on the ground. There was no need for “are you okay?”; I can see that they are not. So I go to them, offer comfort, allow for the child to evaluate themselves, and I reflect what I can observe: “You are crying. Let’s look and see if your body is hurt…I don’t see any big scrapes, can you feel any?…” If it turns out that their body is not hurt, I can try to help them name what they are feeling: “You were trying so hard to catch them, but they were running so fast and then you fell. I bet that felt frustrating.” Sometimes the crying child is too upset to speak. Returning to our values about trusting a child with their own feelings, I don’t try to make them speak, or move, or even accept my comfort. I just reflect what I observe, and tell them my plan: “You are so upset. I will stay here with you”.
When I step back and look at the language that we use as part of our community culture, it really does tell me where we come from and where we are going. We come from a foundation of relationship, of unconditional positive regard for the children of this community. We trust them and the process by which they are acquiring knowledge, which is through play. At the same time, we are steering toward a future where our kids grow to be adults who respond with empathy in everyday situations, who trust themselves, and can name their emotions. We collaborate in providing an opportunity for all of us, adults and children, to practice these values in action. Cottage Speak shows the path we are walking.