When our son Nicholas was just beginning to talk and simultaneously expanding his interests in climbing on things and stacking things in tall piles, his father Daniel taught him an important word. This word summed up a major reason to be cautious about climbing that thing or stacking that way, in one word instead of a whole sentence, so it was very useful when we needed to tell Nicholas to stop and rethink what he was doing before he got hurt or broke something. Nicholas soon learned to say this word himself, so he could cry for help with his adventures and we’d quickly understand what was going wrong, and also he could warn us if something we were doing was hazardous in this way.
The word is unstable.
It’s not a word most people think of including in the first hundred words a child learns to say. It’s so useful, though!
The first teaching of this word, or at least the first one I saw, happened when Nicholas (about 15 months old) was standing on the arm of the couch, playing with the finial on top of the lamp on the end table. This lamp is taller than he was at the time but weighs only about ten pounds and has a narrow base, so it’s easy to knock over. His fiddling with the top of it was causing it to rock back and forth on the table. I was about to go over and redirect him to playing with something else, but Daniel got there first. He said, “Careful! It’s unstable! Look.” He gestured for Nicholas to look at the base of the lamp; then he rocked it toward the edge of the table. “It could fall. Don’t wiggle it. We need it to stay on the table.”
Nicholas soon grabbed the finial again, but this time he was leaning over so he could see past the lampshade. He observed how wiggling the top of the lamp caused the base to move. Then he left it alone.
Eventually we decided that this particular lamp needed to be moved, though, because Nicholas was only able to remember not to do things directly to the lamp that could knock it over–he didn’t understand that bounding and climbing on that end of the couch could result in accidentally bumping the lamp.
However, he showed us in many situations that he understood what “unstable” meant. One time he was standing on a dining-room chair holding onto the back of it, and he began reaching up with his leg as if he wanted to climb up and sit on the top edge. I said, “That’s unstable,” and he immediately lowered his leg and tightened his grip. Another time he looked up at a cookie sheet on the kitchen counter and grabbed the edge–which would likely have caused it to flip and land on his head. The far side was already lifting off the counter as I put my hand on it and said, “It’s unstable. It has to be picked up from two sides to keep it level,” and demonstrated. I then gave him the toaster-oven pan to play with, and he experimented with leaning on one side to make it tip vs. leaning on opposite sides at once vs. picking it up with one hand or two.
By about 20 months, Nicholas could say “unstable” himself. In addition to using it to describe tip-over-able objects, he grumbled it at the bouncing bridge on the playground, and he said, “Mama unstable!” after I slipped on ice. When we rode an amusement ride that made us dizzy, he clutched his head and moaned, “Unstable!”
Then one morning, I was awakened at dawn by a little voice near my head saying clearly, “Oh! Is unstable!!” I flipped over and stuck out my arms just in time to catch the bedside lamp before it crashed to the floor. I turned on the lamp and saw an embarrassed toddler standing next to a tall and precarious stack of books on top of which he’d apparently tried to balance the lamp. I said, “We don’t build towers in the dark!! It is sleeping time!!” He got back into bed. We never had that particular problem again.
The word “unstable” worked for me!