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10:02 AM Sat, Nov. 17th

Column: Secret code beats pig Latin - barely

Courtesy illustration<br>Parents must continually up the ante when trying to keep secrets from kids.

Courtesy illustration<br>Parents must continually up the ante when trying to keep secrets from kids.

I wish I knew a second language. I took four years of French in high school and a year of Spanish in college, but besides being able to order off a menu in a perfect (sort of) accent, I really don't remember a thing.

And at this time of the year, with so many holiday secrets to keep from our four daughters, it'd be really handy to speak a second language. Well, one that my wife knew as well. She does know Spanish (has a master's degree in Spanish, as a matter of fact), so if we BOTH knew Spanish, my problem would be solved. But no. That year of Spanish evaporated the minute after I passed my final exams.

Of course, as parents, we do have certain ways that we've communicated surreptitiously so that the kids can't understand. It's a way that almost every parent uses: We spell things.

We've become quite adept at rattling off strings of letters at high rates of speed, and understanding those letters. Seriously, have a friend spell something at you super-fast. It's impossible to understand unless you're gifted like my wife and I.

We do screw up on occasion. Like spelling the wrong word in the sentence:

"We just have to wrap the sweaters from S-A-N-T-A."

Or when the other person takes a bit of time to realize what's being said, and blurts it out: "We're going to the store to buy the D-O-L-L-H-O-U-S-E. Do you need anything?"

"The wha--? Oh, the dollhouse. Sure, I need - oh, crud."

Or the problem that we're currently facing: Our little ones have learned to read. Well, not so little. Izzy's 12 and Annie's seven. We don't bother trying to spell around Izzy anymore, and Annie is getting better at spelling, so I do try to be clever around her.

"Sarah, where are the S-C-R-I-B-B-L-E-D-W-R-I-T-I-N-G-S-F-R-O-M-O-U-R-O-F-F-S-P-R-I-N-G-T-O-S-A-I-N-T-N-I-C-H-O-L-A-S? They were in a stack on my desk a few days ago."

"... What on earth are you talking about?"

But we persist, and usually, it works like a charm. This spelling out-loud has become second nature. So much so that I sometimes forget that this isn't our little secret language, and that being able to spell is not that uncommon. Sometimes, with embarrassing consequences.

Not too long ago, we were at a fast food restaurant. It was a Sunday afternoon, and the dining room was packed. Standing room only. And our fellow patrons seemed to have one over-arching thing in common, a certain ... wealth of years.

Now, I've nothing against our well-seasoned friends. Certainly not! I enjoy their company, and hope to join their ranks, though no time soon. Still, as we sat down and waited for our order, I was overcome with one of my trademark transient moments of wackiness, and felt that it would be hilarious to point out to my wife that we were indeed surrounded by a lot of gray hair. And in order not to offend our abundantly aged fellow customers, I thought to tell Sarah this in our "secret" language. And since it was crowded and busy, I had to speak rather louder than usual. In fact, I almost had to yell.

"Geez, Sarah. There sure are a lot of G-E-E-Z-E-R-S here today."

Did you spot the flaw in my plan? Yes, our youth-challenged neighbors certainly COULD spell. And they were none too pleased with my observation. I think the only people who didn't know exactly what I said was our kids. So, in a way, mission accomplished.

We're resourceful, my wife and I. We will adapt and find a new way of talking about the kids right in front of them. Our youngest two are still oblivious.

Maybe next year, my wife could teach me Spanish just so that we could talk about Christmas in front of the kids.

Although, I bet those girls of mine would learn Spanish JUST to figure out what they were getting.

I think we'll just start passing notes instead.