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Crazy or just hootchie cootchie googooing?

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Column by David B. Whitlock

Standing at the end of the aisle in the department store, I heard loud noises from someone coming closer. “Woo who, boo boo, waahhh waahhh.”

The weird sounds were coming from a lady walking down the aisle. And the closer she got to me, the louder her babbling became. She looked to be 60 something and the younger woman following close behind her I assumed to be the older lady’s 20-something daughter.

“Poor lady,” I thought. “She must be unable to control her voice. Or perhaps she’s challenged and the caring daughter is taking her mom shopping.”

Then I noticed the daughter was wearing one of those forward-facing-out baby carriers. Only the baby wasn’t in it. Taking a second look at the lady talking gibberish, I could see she was looking down at something.

The lady wasn’t speech impaired nor was she mentally unstable. She was just talking to her grandbaby in the stroller that was hidden from my view.

When we hear someone in a public place unashamedly jabbering, we are likely to conclude that person either has a diminished mental capacity or is simply obnoxious. But with a baby there, the person suddenly becomes a normal, loving parent or grandparent communicating with a child.

Most of us who have spent any time in the presence of an infant have talked in those baby tones. After a Sunday morning worship service, I might start speaking in another language if my daughter, Madi, brings my 8-month-old grandson, Eli, from the church nursery to me.

“Hootchie, cootchie, goo,” I say to him while tickling his chin.

It doesn’t bother me that some of the people to whom I’ve just preached are standing close to me. In fact, they join me in the baby babble.

In a less formal public setting — our Wednesday night fellowship meal — I’ve actually sung to Eli. Then, I somehow transition from mouthing, “Hot dog/hot dog/ hot diggety dog” to teaching my Bible study on the book of Revelation. It’s the only time my congregation lets me sing solo; a giggling Baby Eli makes it OK.

In the presence of an infant we can discard our roles and titles — student, administrative assistant, doctor, CEO, teacher, manager — and become a kid for a moment. As long as the baby is there, we’re fine.

And here’s something else: Some research seems to indicate this infant-directed talk not only is fun for adults but healthy for the baby. It’s subject to debate, but some scientists contend baby-directed speech can help lay the foundation for language development.

Repeating those “goo goo” and “gaa gaa” sounds back to the child, and even using a playful voice while enunciating them, can help babies learn sounds.

I’m glad my “cootchie cootchie coos” might help Eli’s language development. But that’s not why I talk like that to him. It’s a way I can enter into his world — connecting, communicating and loving him.

Maybe it’s in our DNA to do that; it seems to come naturally. Infant-directed speech appears cross culturally, although not universally.

Then again, perhaps we learned it from a higher source. The Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, is supposed to have said that when God speaks to us, he speaks in baby talk. I suppose Luther meant God bends down to our level because we are helpless to know him unless he finds a way to communicate with us. Like a baby to an adult, we are dependent on God to stoop to us if we are to hear from him.

It’s a movement of love. And that’s reason enough for me to play the fool, cooing, oohing and ahhing my way into the baby’s world, loving him into a relationship where we know and understand each other better and better the more we talk and listen to one another.

David Whitlock is a Baptist minister and author of the book “Life Matters.” He can be reached by email at drdavid@davidbwhitlock.com.