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Words, in the family

Language makes the world liveable

(O. Paz)

Families operate through words: they instil in their children ways of doing and learning, mannerisms of speech, care, interpretations and explanations, a notion of themselves and what they represent to others. Ideally, they also establish a symbolic framework that organises for them roles and functions and introduces a certain measure of regulation and tranquillity:

1. Places, roles. Words to find oneself within a family and in the world, knowing what is expected of them and what of the responsible adults. To be able to meet other people and to participate in their environment with curiosity and with no significant difficulties.

A vignette: during a gathering, a little boy plays with the computer that doubles as a sound system, interrupting the music continuously and putting the equipment at risk of falling from the table. His father watches him and says nothing, until someone asks him to intervene. “But what can I say to him?”, he answers. The peculiarity of this answer owes less to the absence of a nomination introducing a “no” -not that, not now, not in this place, not this object- than to the father’s perplexity.

Sometimes parents accompany their children with light words that don’t ‘set boundaries’ for them. That is, words that don’t draw a contour for their world or signal the confines of their acts and their responsibilities, nor do they circumscribe their role in the family discourse. Words that produce anxiety rather than calm, because it is left to the children to take charge of regulating their body, their acts and their affections, and to find the means to form the question: “What do they [my parents, the adults, the other children] want from me?”

2. The bodies. Words for children who are comfortable within the daily routines and events. For bodies that sleep, eat, agitate and calm themselves and little by little acquire new skills.

Thinking about families in terms of the words that circulate or are silenced therein, there is on one hand, the account that each person makes of their origins and the family legends: “My mother, who was a Saint …”, “When our grandparents arrived in town, they carried only a suitcase and an address scribbled on a bit of paper …”.

And on the other hand, the sayings that organise everyday life and modulate the body and its excitements: “In this house we eat at one o’clock”, “Don’t hit your brother”.

3. The adults. Words to regulate the adults. So children do not occupy the uncomfortable place of one who is everything to the adult, nor of one who is at the mercy of their whims. So they are rooted in history, traditions and know-how, in the knowledge that they will eventually have to detach themselves a little from all of that to find what is singular to them; to become interested in other forms of knowledge.

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