Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Mama Siren

Children will go to great lengths to get their parents’ attention. Verbally, the result of this is what I like to call “The Mama Siren.”

The Mama Siren begins much the way that I imagine fire engine and police sirens first began: as a loud, repeated noise intended to break through the hubbub of miscellaneous background noises. Old-fashioned sirens repeated two notes: Wee-oo, wee-oo, wee-oo. Small children also begin by repeating two notes: Ma-ma. Ma-ma. Ma-ma. Once people got used to the sound of sirens, they weren’t quite as attention-grabbing, so they began changing volume slightly: WEE-oo, WEE-oo. Likewise with children: Ma-ma. Ma-ma! MA! MA!! But eventually, we all learned to tune those sounds out as well. So modern sirens and alarms use a wide variety of sounds to catch our attention: WEE-oo. BRRR BRRRR BRRR. Meep meep meep meep. Zoo-pa zoo-pa zoo-pa. Bzzz bzzz bzzz bzzz. Children discovered the same thing: Mama! Mum! Mum! Mommy! Mama mama mama! Mummy! Mum! Ma! MAAAAAA!!!

Both modern calls appear to work on the principle that changing sounds are more likely to capture our attention through the haze of general noise that is always around us. But the actual fact of how they work is that they are ANNOYING.

You try to ignore it for as long as you can, but finally it sets your teeth a little too much on edge and, like Lois in the clip above, you blurt out an irritated, “WHAT??!!??”

Now, I’m sure there are occasions when a child is attempting to impart a critically important piece of information like, “The drapes are on fire,” or “I just shut my little sister in the dryer,” or “It makes my tongue feel all tingly when I chew on this battery.” But in my experience, the message following the Mama Siren is almost always along the lines of, “Hi,” or “Water is wet,” or “Nothing.”

Like the Boy Who Cried Wolf, a child who overuses the Mama Siren will probably eventually have a crucial bit of news to report, and that report will be delayed because of that past misuse. And unfortunately, the fallout from that reporting delay is much more likely to affect the parent than the child. The child, after all, has no personal attachment to the drapes, no concern for his little sister’s welfare, and no concept of what battery acid will do to the human tongue. The mother, on the other hand, will have a heart attack, have a heart attack, and have a heart attack as a result of those three particular bits of news.

So just like I force myself to glance around the parking lot for suspicious activity when I hear a car alarm blaring, I force myself to look around for telltale signs of impending disasters when I hear the Mama Siren. I don’t want to miss any crucial news. And besides, every now and then the important announcement turns out to be, “I love you.”

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