There is nothing sadder than a toddler who can say, “I’m lonely,” with an appropriately pitiful expression.
I don’t think she really knows what it means. I think she uses it as a synonym for “sad” when she wants to ramp up the intensity of our response.
That doesn’t make it any less poignant.
Allow me to derail myself before I even begin — why is the phrase “magic word” instead of the grammatically appropriate “magical word?” Anyway…
Owlet’s been saying lots of sweet polite things which, in all honesty, are things that we say to her all the time which become adorable when repeated back to us in her lilting toddler soprano. Among the expected “Please?” “Thank you!” “Excuse me…” “I’m sorry,” “Are you ok?” and the much-prized “I love you,” are my three current favorites:
“I love your hugs, Mommy. I love your kisses.”
“Thanks for giving/doing x, Mommy. That was really nice!”
“So-o-o-o… what did you do today?”
Our method of choice for manners is the monkey-see-monkey-do approach. We try really hard not to prompt for the magical words (although for me, a grey area is to ask that a particularly imperious demand be rephrased more nicely) and trust that they will flow out naturally the way the Hokey Pokey does; i.e., frequently and without any conscious training on our part, other than perhaps to try to be more polite ourselves to better the example we provide.
So far, this seems to be working.
And it’s amazing how magical those words truly are. I remember the pulled-tooth feeling of being prompted for such words as a child, and I simply didn’t understand why a person would bother requesting them the way grown-ups so often did. I mean, it doesn’t change the meaning, does it? But now, when my little one tosses a handful in my direction — oh! The difference it makes. If I’m distracted, she has my attention. If I’m frustrated, she can soothe my soul in a breath. If I’m sad, such healing her little words bring, and if I’m already happy, well, then our giggles dance like an armload of water balloons.
But the usual polite statements aren’t the the only magical words. “I’m lonely” is a perfect example. Because “lonely” is such an evocative word, it gives Thor or I something to latch onto in our reply. So even if Owlet just means to say that she’s a bit down, she’s still getting the kind of response she needs in order to feel better. Or here’s a great example from the little girl I used to babysit; when she was a toddler, her parents were teaching her to say “I’m frustrated” when she was, you know, frustrated, but for the first month or so, what often came out instead was “I’m frustrating!” Now there’s a tension ray-gun, huh? Because when a toddler is frustrated, her caregiver is usually nearly at their wit’s end as well, right? But then the kid goes and says that very thing you’re feeling, not just names it but does it with unconsciously witty panache. Shhhmp. There goes all that negative energy. Vaporized.
Of course, all words are magical words. Try it and see:
A man walks into a library. He says, “I’d like to a book on the Galapagos Islands,” and one appears.
(I’d started with a man walking into a bar, but he’d also need those pesky bits of magical paper…)