Monthly Archives: July 2012

Genuine Interactions by Modeling and Scaffolding Language

Here’s the scene:

Dad, watching daughter’s eyes (yay!), sees her look at a passing dog.

Dad: “Is that a dog? Do you see the dog? Can you say dog? Dog. Dog-gie.”

Toddler: Silent. Possibly pondering why dad asked if she knew it was a dog when he was clearly so sure of himself. Or maybe wishing she could throw him a bone. (The dog, people, the dog.)


I will probably go to my grave able to hear my graduate school supervisor’s voice advising me to stop asking questions while providing language therapy with my first pediatric client. I think she even kept data to monitor my progress. So, I’ve been aware of this pattern for years and have noticed how everyone does this with children to some degree. Stop, listen and you’ll hear kids being asked ridiculous questions everywhere you go. Plus, it’s an incredibly hard habit to break. Yet from an normal interaction standpoint, it’s actually quite silly when you think about it. There’s a much more effective way to build language skills.

Most of us don’t form our knowledge base about a topic from questions. We learn a little bit, then ask questions. Essentially, we build a foundation from which we can ask questions, which take us to the higher levels of thinking. Young children use vocabulary as the cement. (I guess phonology is the sand and water?! Maybe we shouldn’t take this too far.)


The scene above could instead go like this:

Adult: “Oh, there’s a dog!” (Modeling the word and pausing, giving daughter time to process and speak.)

Toddler: “Dog.” (That’s the truth, right?! It doesn’t get super complicated very quickly.)

Adult: “What a sweet brown dog.” (Continues conversation and adds a new descriptor or two- scaffolding her language just a little bit.)

Toddler: “Want dog.”

Adult: “Do you want to pet the dog?” (Genuine question, very appropriate.)

Toddler: “Yup. Pet dog.”


Moving away from constant questioning to a more reciprocal interaction style is liberating. Instead of taking over their topic of interest, we are able to follow their lead and build on it. We are no longer putting kids on the spot, either. (Though there remain many moments when I am still guilty of this- and always feel regretful afterwards.) We are engaging with them at their level but allowing them time and space to comment on whatever interests them, not just to answer our questions.Conversations with toddlers are not always easy, but with this technique they get easier and can be incredibly fun, silly and enlightening. Since toddlers are still pruning their semantic network, the connections they’ll make between different words and ideas can be hilarious. If adults are in constant bombardment mode, babies don’t get as many chances to shine. And make us giggle! I remember one very bright little toddler insisting that crows were pigeons for a few months. Kids will come around through modeling.* All you have to do is work in corrections in a gentle, natural way.

Toddler: “Pigeon! Caw-caw, pigeon!”

Adult: “Wow, I see that black bird. What a noisy crow. Caw-caw, crow.” 

Toddler: “Bye pigeon!”

Adult: “Bye birdie! Bye crow!”


Also, modeling language is a great way to mediate a scary or challenging situation for young kids. For example, we had a thunderstorm roll through Seattle this week, scaring my little guy. (We may get lots of rain, but thunderstorms are very unusual.) I used snuggle time and lots of soothing descriptions to help him get through the storm. Each time lightning struck I would quietly say part or all of something like this, “There’s lightning. Here comes the thunder. There’s the thunder. It’s loud. It’s grumbling.” Miles just sat on me, listening, taking it all in. Later in the day he kept saying, “Thunder turn on and then thunder turn off.” When Charlie mentioned lightning, Miles added “Thunder turn on and Lightning McQueen turn on.” (Lightning McQueen! How awesome is that?!) Rather than giving him an outright correction or bombarding him with questions, I could just model the appropriate language for him. “First lightning came and then we heard thunder. And then it happened again. Now it’s all done. The storm is over.” Modeling the language during a scary situation provided a way for him to talk about his fears later. By calmly providing the words (instead of questioning him), he could take it in at his pace and feel as safe as possible. I feel certain that just knowing the name of something can help demystify, reduce stigma and help us feel more comfortable with new situations.

So, even though I’ve known this stuff for years. I still ask the stupidest questions sometimes, particularly when I’m trying to connect and not feeling particularly witty or energetic. Like asking, “How old are you?” to a kid I’ve known since they were in-utero while we’re at their birthday party with enormous cut-out 5s everywhere. Such patient kids, putting up with all our silliness.



*There are kids with language disorders and language delays who will need therapy and more direct teaching styles to develop vocabulary. I am referring to a typically developing child.


No More White Food: Family Dinners


Charlie was the dream baby and toddler who ate anything. We’d carry frozen peas to the zoo in the summer and he’d chow down on them. He’d eat cherry tomatoes off the vine, gobble down spinach and broccoli, pound blue cheese and enjoy raw tofu dipped in balsamic vinegar (don’t ask). Just prior to his third birthday we moved from Colorado to Seattle, which included the most prolonged exposure to high amounts of processed foods he’d ever had. Lots of granola bars, pasta, dried fruit and crackers to get us through the winter cross-country drive and early days of our move. And, he got picky. And pickier. (Now I know this had just as much to do with age as it did our food choices, if not moreso, but we certainly didn’t help anything.)

For a myriad of reasons beyond Charlie’s all-white diet desires, our family decided to get rid of as many processed foods as we could, starting with breakfast cereals. It was a hard adjustment as first, but after a few weeks we were in the groove and able to add more change. This bit by bit journey continues. We’re now going on nearly three years of reducing processed foods from our diet. With a few more big changes, like making our own bread, yogurt and cheese, I think we could actually avoid grocery stores altogether. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t grow everything. In fact, my garden this year wouldn’t feed a goat. (Well, yes it would because there are plenty of weeds. But not a picky goat. A zucchini, tomato loving goat would starve.) Anyways, the potential repreive from grocery stores is thanks to amazing local CSAs, bulk orders online, farmer’s markets, and a close friend who grinds her own wheat. She’s that cool.

Early on in the journey Charlie desperately wanted his old stand-by of boxed macaroni and cheese, so we decided he’d get it as as special babysitter’s treat (this is still the case). For the rest, we’d have healthy foods in the house as quick bites and occasionally bake special sweet treats. Often I was just making a dinner for the boys that I was pretty sure they’d eat and then making a second meal for Harry and I. But, if I made food that they weren’t keen on, we’d let them have a healthy choice from the fridge as a substitute. Even though the fridge repetoire included nuts, shredded carrots, broccoli, peas, corn, sweet bell peppers, cheese, bread, tofu and other crunchy granola hippie options, this was not a good move.

We were living under the premise that exposure to real, healthy food is all that mattered for kids to not be picky. I thought we were going to have to weather out these young years of refusal, only to see our child blossom into a salad, curry, raw oyster eating machine. Wrong.

In early May I had the privilege of hearing Lisa Fligor, RD, speak about feeding toddlers. Though her topic didn’t focus on dinnertime, she made one off-hand comment that led to pivotal change for our family. It was basically this: “At dinnertime, my kids get to eat anything on the table. If it’s on the table, they can have it. If it’s not, they can’t.” And what Lisa continued on with turned it all upside down for me. Apparently there is sound research out there that kids who have high levels of control over their food choices become pickier and pickier. (I haven’t read the studies, so I’m not sure just how solid the research is, but I trust her judgment.) We can certainly add our anecdoctal evidence to the pile. Charlie got the point of rejecting all tomato sauce (pizza! spaghetti!). He’d complain if something wasn’t prepared the exact same way it had been the last time. He was turning into King Charles, a royal pain at the dinner table. I’d be up and down a million times getting him his various requests.

I knew she was right. We’d lived it. I’ve seen it in countless other families whose kids won’t touch a single vegetable and only want fruit and pasta. But, I’d also seen a dear friend’s three kids (ages 4 and 5) gobble down salad, kale and lentils. She’s the one who grinds her own flour. And her kids get what is served, not back-ups. And they hardly ever eat any processed food. I wanted this for our family.

The next step was wrapping my head around what this would involve for me with food preparation. I needed to plan meals better and sacrifice more afternoon outings for time in the kitchen instead. At least one of our weekend days needed to involve an hour or two of kitchen time. I wanted the first few meals to be an easy transition for Charlie, so I made sure to have some very healthy favorites on the table (like hard-boiled eggs, cut bell peppers and nuts) for a choice as sides to our meal. And we needed to explain the change to him, of which we’re actually still sometimes reminding him: “What’s on the table is what you may choose from.”

Beyond that, this is what Lisa recommended based on the nutrition research: No bribing to get vegetables consumed. No set number of bites. No coercion. No controlling. No commenting on what does and doesn’t get eaten. And if you’re going to serve dessert, everyone gets it. Dessert is not a bribe or omitted as punishment. Last, If you’re going to talk about how food tastes, use specific descriptors like spicy, sweet, bitter, sour, crunchy and avoid polarizing with good / bad, yummy / yucky.

Do you see how awesome this is? Do you know what this means? You can actually sit at the table and talk about LIFE while you enjoy your food. You can cook whatever it is that you’d like to eat and not make a separate meal for the adults later. And it’s up to your kids to learn how to enjoy their food. It’s not your job. Your kids might go to bed without full bellies, but they’ll make up for it with a heartier breakfast (and I always try to make sure to provide a breakfast they’ll load up on if they didn’t eat dinner).

What we’ve learned the past few months:

1) Some foods should probably be dished out with everyone getting a set serving in a little bowl, like fruit. Otherwise the boys will fill themselves with nothing but fruit and not try anything else.

2) Sometimes plates just need to be delivered with all parts of the food on them because otherwise the kids would never voluntarily choose green beans to go with the rice on their plates.

3) Allowing Charlie one meal a week to be his choice of a homemade dish is a really great thing for his spirits. He now goes cuckoo for homemade macaroni and cheese, though next time I’m supposed to leave the onions out. I’m going to get really good at making baked pasta dishes.

4) We mess up. We can easily revert to wanting to control with number of bites or coercion. It’s really hard to trust the process when others are watching and bribing their kids with dessert. But it’s equally ridiculous to hear how crazy we can all get in trying to get our kids to eat their vegetables. Taking a step back from it makes it all look a little wacky.

What progress have we seen in two months? Charlie now eats tomato sauce in all forms, whereas before he would rarely touch pizza, pasta or other foods with tomato sauce. (And this is THE SAUCE. If you haven’t had it, thank me now. It’s awesome. Add these meatballs and you’ll come kiss me.) He is almost always willing to try new foods now, whereas before he wouldn’t give it a second look or we’d have to bribe him. Miles happily eats red curry sauces and whatever vegetables are in them and seems to always prefer more bold flavors. He even tried a manila clam in a spicy curry sauce, but promptly spit it out and said, “spicy!” We aren’t concerned about eating at restaurants or other people’s homes because the rules are the same, making them much more pleasant guests to feed. They can serve us all the same thing and it’s up to the boys to be adventurous or not. And there won’t be whining because it doesn’t work. Amen and hallelujah.

Vocabulary to Lessen Stigma: Have you taught your kids these words?

In the past few weeks I’ve experienced tiny twinges of embarrassment, most like those last felt in my seventh grade sex ed class, except these came while reading a library book to my oldest. I’m reading away, maintaining a calm exterior but my head is spinning: erection, sperm, sex, intercourse, fallopian tubes, urethra! Oh my goodness, am I really saying these words to my FIVE YEAR OLD? And we get on a plane to see family tomorrow! Is he going to ask our pilot if she has a vagina? Or ask his grandpa if he has sperm swimming inside his testicles? I can be a little anxious at times.

How in the world did I get into this predicament? Well, by choice, through a very gradual education. I can blame most of it on one friend who is also passionate about child development. When she passed on her copy of Nurture Shock to me a year or two ago, I ate it up. I am a huge believer in evidence-based practice. For medicine, for speech-language pathology, and yes, for parenting. (And I admit to dreaming that we’d run our country this way, too.) I guess I see it like most things we do: there is a science and an art. So, this book basically shares the most intriguing research applicable to raising children and readers can decide if and how they’re going to apply the knowledge.

The chapter “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race” resonated deeply with me and also kicked my butt a bit. One survey shared that 75% of white parents never or almost never talk about race, even though most have good intentions to not raise racist children. Some parents didn’t share because they didn’t want to say “the wrong thing” or thought pointing out race was worse than not talking about it. Some thought that exposing them to various races and cultures or reading them books and showing them videos would be enough to prevent bias.

But lots of research is showing otherwise and I imagine those in less privileged positions are saying, “No duh!” right now and trying not to roll their eyes. One researcher reasoned that kids are “developmentally prone to in-group favoritism” and will naturally categorize by whatever attributes are most visible. Young children needed to know the specific vocabulary or else they would refer to “skin like ours” or “eyes like mine” for descriptors of people, instead of the appropriate racial title, like Asian or Hispanic. Additionally, many older kids automatically assumed that their parents’ silence was actually an indication of them “not liking black people.” By early elementary school, kids already made their own categories of division and were making decisions based upon this schema.

Sad and convicted that I was one of those white parents not talking about race (this silence comes from such a place of privilege!), I started talking to Charlie, then four years old, about race, including details about where people originated while looking at a map. It also felt like a good time to talk about languages, food, and other cultural practices. We continue to discuss that many people treat others poorly because of these differences. He inherently sees that that’s sad. He understands it’s not right. Thankfully, this can be more than just talk for us. We have friends of different races with whom we regularly spend time. It is an ongoing conversation but he is at least getting an introduction to the vocabulary and he knows this topic is safe to talk about. Eventually we will talk about white privilege, how to identify and understand our own biases and how we can better live into racial reconciliation. I am not so naive as to think that our early discussions will prevent our children from having bias, so I see this as purely a jumping off point.

I have thought about these ideas of developmental categorization and parental silence a lot. Not just with race, but in relation to many other topics that are often stigmatized, including our bodies, sex and sexuality. So, I have really worked hard to be more open while maintaining respect for the current abilities to understand topics. When I was about to have Miles, Charlie asked how the baby would come out of me. I paused to think a bit and responded, “Well, boys have two holes, one for pooping and one for peeing. Girls have three holes, one for pooping, one for peeing and one that babies can come out of.” That was it. He was satisfied and I felt good that I was honest with him but also gave him a reasonable amount of information to process at age three.

Several months ago I taught Charlie about circumcision because he laughed at a cartoon boy’s uncircumcized “silly penis.” I shared this with friends and the very same friend who lent me Nurture Shock recommended It’s NOT the Stork!  I put it on hold from our library system, picked it up, and placed it in our usual library book spot. Later that afternoon, I found Charlie sitting on our couch with the book opened up to this page:


I wasn’t quite ready for that.

But, we started reading. Not on that page. It’s not the first, thankfully. I had to live into these beliefs, once again. If vocabulary is one building block for understanding the world around us, I’d rather give him these words now and deal with deeper levels of understanding later. I don’t want it to be hard to say the words “penis” or “vagina” around my boys when they’re older. How in the world would we talk about sex, condoms, and STDs without crawling out of our skin? And I definitely don’t want to leave this education up to their peers, the media or schools. As crazy as it is to read these things to such a little person, I am enormously relieved we’ve opened the door for open conversation about our bodies and sex at a young age. Right now there is NO embarrassment for him and I get to practice being more comfortable with the topic. This is key for me. He has yet to categorize such discussions as off-limits for his parents and now I’m hoping he never does. Here’s to saying “erection” at the dinner table, folks! Ok, maybe before the meal.