Category Archives: Language Development

Enter in

In my last post, I mentioned the (fading) tendency for many parents to avoid discussions about any topic that is potentially controversial or dangerous, apart from the obvious “Stranger Danger” talk, which is commonly accepted as suitable for young children’s ears. I have written about talking with kids about race and sex before, but I wanted to follow up. Partly because I keep hearing well-intentioned comments like, “Kids just need to know we’re all special and unique”, and partly because reading about the White Man March made my blood boil–writing here let off some steam. Hordes of parents thoughtfully, respectfully, proactively educating their children about differences among people is the march in which I want to participate.

A study mentioned in NurtureShock’s chapter on “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race” shared that even in a liberal-leaning city like Austin in 2006, most white parents weren’t talking about race. Not because they didn’t believe it was important, but because they were afraid of saying the “wrong thing.” So, instead of commenting specifically on racial differences, these parents fell back on safe phrases like “everybody’s equal” and “we’re all the same under our skin.”

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One type of ornamental cherry tree blossom–feel free to help me develop my specificity here!

Not all families have the luxury of ignoring specificity. If you’re a family with two moms, it won’t be long before your child takes note that your family structure is less common and inquires about it. Or perhaps an older child will bring it up at the playground first, catching you off guard. Either way, those moms will talk thoughtfully with their child about all the possible combinations of people that may comprise a family. This conversation will continue throughout their lifetime, too, because it’s importance will grow. The same goes for families whose members are of a minority ethnicity, whose child has a disability, who practice an uncommon religion, who are vegan, etc… In fact, I would surmise that conversations about differences are common practice for families who find themselves in just about any type of minority group.

Parents in exceptional situations learn to speak directly to their children regarding the societal attitudes that impact them. This necessity for specifically educating children is even greater if their particular minority group is feared or hated. Those parents know there is an inherent element of risk in just being who they are. To be silent on the topic is to risk allowing their children to internalize the stigmas, face isolation and experience deep pain, let alone experience worst case scenarios like the Trayvon Martin and Matthew Shepherd tragedies. Black parents will have very frank discussions with their sons about how they must carry themselves to avoid danger. White parents do not have to do this. I would not worry if my husband or boys got pulled over by a cop. I would if I were black. Those in the majority groups have the luxury of deciding whether or not to enter the conversation. This is one of countless examples of how majority privilege plays out.

The problem with discussing race and other differences vaguely (“We’re all unique, like snowflakes!”) is that, like adults, kids are not difference-blind. Young children are quite observant of all human characteristics, particularly those that are different than themselves. Even babies as young as six months show they are sensitive to new facial features by staring at pictures of people from unfamiliar ethnicities longer than pictures of people familiar to them. Later, as children age, they become “developmentally prone to in-group favoritism.”¹ This is why by age five and six, most kids begin to prefer playing with the same gender, or at a minimum begin rejecting anything stereotypically associated with the other gender. “I don’t want the pink cup. I’m a boy!” The same goes for race. Even in racially diverse environments, children will begin to naturally segregate into their “known” group whenever possible. Again and again, this happens unless a specific conversation takes place.

Consider how babies and toddlers learn concrete vocabulary. Prior to speaking their first word, babies will understand many words and phrases. They are soaking in all the labels tossed at them during walks, story time, playtime and mealtime. The first time parents realize their child truly knows a word is magical. Baby might have casually heard the word milk and began kicking their legs excitedly and babbling. Parents naturally tune into their child’s ever-growing vocabulary base and begin to stretch it. “Milk? You’re hungry? Ok, time to eat!” Similarly, once parents realize their child understands the word for flower, they will begin labeling specific flowers. Meanwhile, the child’s brain is busy mapping all these new words, figuring out the semantic relationships–what is a category and what is a subcategory, what is a noun and what is an adjective? Eventually they understand that flowers have some things in common (petals, stems, leaves) but that their shapes and color may differ. The same thing needs to happen for kids to understand the differences among people. A tulip does not lose it’s beauty nor value by being labeled more specifically. Nor does a person lose their beauty or value by being labeled appropriately. Rather, understanding differences, and the reasons for them, provides opportunity for greater appreciation.

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Another type of ornamental cherry tree blossom (at the University of Washington quad)

So, I choose to enter the conversation.

Choosing to enter the conversation means I didn’t dodge the awkwardness when my then two-year-old commented that our visiting black friend has “dirty” skin. Instead, I stepped right into the heart of it. (Remember, this is not a mean comment coming from a little kid. My white son knew his fingers got darker after playing in dirt. He knew that his skin is dirty when it’s dark brown, so he was simply applying his truth to someone else.) I said something like, “Oh, Natalie’s skin isn’t dirty. She has brown skin all the time. People have all sorts of different skin colors, and ways their faces and bodies look.” Since Natalie was in touch with what kids need, she asked him if he wanted to touch her skin. She rubbed it to show she didn’t have dirt coming off. By doing this, she invited him further into the conversation.

As my boys age, we talk with increasing detail about differences found in people. I provide my children with the proper labels for ethnic groups, for referring to people with disabilities, for talking about people who are overweight, etc… We began with the most common people groups of the United States and move towards deepening and broadening their understanding over time. They know that many of their friends are multi-racial and how that happens. They know that others were adopted from other countries. They know that some friends have gay parents. Having these conversations makes it acceptable to discuss that someone looks different, acts different, or has differences in their family. Because we all do.

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Sometimes knowing what term is correct can be tricky (black vs African American, Asian American vs Amerasian, etc…). Asking friends if they have a preference will quickly clear up confusion. Questioning politely, with your child present, models to your children that this is a safe topic when handled respectfully. It helps to keep stigma at bay and maintain open lines of communication. In general, stick with teaching your kids the most correct terms you know and be open to the understanding that they may change. Soon enough your kids will inform you if you don’t stay on top of it. (“They’re not Oriental! They’re Asian!” has been groaned by thousands of forty year old white children to their parents.)

Older kids can be invited even deeper, learning about how places of origin often determine skin color, facial features, height, etc… Every time we have this discussion, I find a world map and the internet quite useful. We have talked about how America was initially inhabited by Native Americans and then looked at pictures, read books, etc… We have talked about many people came to America from different places and that’s part of why we see so many different types of people, whereas some countries remain relatively homogenous. The lesson incorporates race, geography and history.

Choosing to enter the conversation means that I share developmentally appropriate details about racism and how various people groups, including kids, have been treated poorly because of how they look. With my first grader, it means educating him on a handful of details about slavery and Jim Crow laws, as well as introducing him to a few key brave people who fought to change these laws. It also means letting him know that plenty of injustice remains and talking about how we can help.

Choosing to enter the conversation means that I don’t rush my boys along when they pass someone in a wheelchair and stare or inquire about it. If the person in the chair appears open to converse, I will sometimes engage them in our conversation by introducing myself and letting them know my boys have questions (which is already obvious to them, but it helps break the ice). Once this led to one exceptionally friendly woman demonstrating everything her electric wheelchair could do, including moving it into a full stand. My boys thought she was bad-ass! She enthusiastically answered their questions. In fact, I think she was touched. She was seen. She was heard. Her differences were acknowledged as worthy of discussion. My kids weren’t shushed as she passed. We welcomed her presence.

Choosing to enter the conversation means that I talk to my boys about different family structures. Some parents are divorced. Some parents are both dads, some are both moms. Some kids are adopted. It means we talk about how some people don’t think all of these families are ok, but that we do and why.

Choosing to enter the conversation even means I don’t lie to my three year old when he sees a Diva Cup in it’s invitingly brand new bright pink and purple box on the kitchen counter and asks if he can have some candy. He says, “What is it? Can I suck on it? Does it taste good?” He thinks it’s some sort of cool lollipop! I don’t give him all the details, but I tell him it’s something women use to catch blood from their vagina. (Yup. I’m saying these things. To a kid under four feet tall. It was embarrassingly awkward the first time, but now it feels pretty easy and even quite comical.) “Women bleed every once in awhile because this is how their body works. It’s what allows them to have babies.” There is no reason for this to be an off-limits topic, so I enter in. (Random side note: Why does Diva Cup include a little lapel pin saying “Diva” in their box? Are we supposed to wear it while we’re menstruating so people treat us a little kinder? Should we also have one if we’re gassy?)

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Another type of cherry blossom, plus the incredible Diva lapel pin that you, too, can wear while menstruating! (Some restrictions may apply.)

Engaging in these conversations takes some thought and practice. It felt very uncomfortable at first because it hadn’t been modeled to me. Even now, every time I encounter a brand new topic I feel awkward and fumble quite a bit, especially if a stranger is involved (“Look, mom! That person is ROUND!”). My ability to formulate bites of information appropriate for their level of language comprehension has improved with practice, but I’m also growing more comfortable with the novelty of these discussions and feeling embarrassed in public. (“Mom, what’s that on her face?” “Mom, look at that person’s bottom!”) There is room for fumbling, asking questions, figuring it out together. My primary goal is to respect all the people involved.

As strange as it feels in the beginning, these conversations are best started with kids as young as two and three, because by five and six kids already have clearly divided categories upon which they’ve placed their own labels. Simply by observing the world, those older children have already divided people into groups. Having the basic knowledge of proper vocabulary can also help them understand what holds all these groups together, as well as what separates them. This allows them to have a conversation about them in a respectful manner. They can begin to connect the categories that were once divided because they now know how they fit onto their vocabulary map. It may seem counterintuitive, but it’s true.

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1 NutureShock, pg 53 (forgive my lack of APA documentation--this is my lazy footnote attempt)
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The Never-Ending Sex Talk

During lunch this week Miles threw out, “Mama, how did you made me?” This question came after a morning of typical activities three year olds and six year olds do while inside. They played in boxes, battled with light sabers, hurt each other with them, cried and screamed, listened to books, and made a million silly noises. Nothing super serious. Even the books were Dr. Seuss. The question felt very out of the blue. For goodness sake, he just turned three.

As you might already know, we are very open about bodies in our household. I was able to tell Miles, without hesitation, “Mama and Papa made you.” I greatly prefer this response to “God made you” for a variety of reasons, but mainly because I’m not trying to dodge the knitty-gritty of it all. This isn’t an existential conversation. Those will come later. Then, get this. In the sweetest voice ever he said, “Thank you for making me.” (He does this. He thanks people all the time for things they did for him, often for events that occurred weeks prior. It is an amazingly charming quality.) Someday he’ll probably know that we debated long and hard about a second child. His comment felt more touching to me because of that bit of our history.

Next Miles asked how we were able to keep his head on. Then how we put his skin on. I adore him so much I could eat him up. His curiosity is going to serve him very well. Anyways, I gave him a brief, “Oh, we didn’t do that, it all happened inside my belly.” I didn’t even dawn on me in the moment that he was probably thinking we put him together like Legos.

Charlie quickly piped in, “Miles, you were as small as a tadpole! And you had a tail. But the tail popped off! And you had these funny eyes. But maybe that was just the book. And then you got bigger and bigger and bigger! And then mama was pregnant and she had to go to the hospital to have you. Then you were born!” We might have a little reviewing to do to fill in some gaps for Charlie. But he definitely knows about sperm! Clearly, this education is a long-term commitment. Hopefully the continued discussions will help minimize shame and stigma.

Not too long ago Miles went through a phase of asking me repeatedly if I had a penis. I’d go through the routine: “Nope. I don’t have a penis. Boys and men have penises. Girls and women have vaginas.” He’s asked his grandparents. He’s asked some of my friends. And I’m pretty sure every time he sees me naked he’s looking to see if I have grown one overnight. Once after asking me, he beat me to the response and said, “You have a fonus!” Then he totally giggled.

Most of this open labeling of bodies and bodily functions has led to really hilarious, wonderful interactions, winning me over despite my initial hesitations. I wasn’t thrilled the first time I had to explain menstruation because they walked in on me in the bathroom and saw blood. That’s an awkward situation, especially when your pants are down. The openness can be embarrassing in public, too. Like when I was in a busy, downtown bathroom and Miles was loudly asking “What’s that? What’s in your underwear? But why? Why is there blood? Do you have an owie?” But, I swallowed my pride a bit and we got over that hurdle. I’m so glad we’re opening the lines of communication with them this young. I can’t imagine how heightened the embarrassment must get when kids are older. FOR US! Probably them, too.

Asking for Themselves: Encouraging Public Discourse

One of my favorite parenting decisions came while on the playground with my oldest son when he was shy of two years old. He saw another child’s tricycle, something which he had yet to experience, and naturally wanted to try it out. The common reaction at playgrounds is for kids to be told, “That’s not yours. Sorry, you can’t play with it.” So, my first thought was, “It would upset the other child and we shouldn’t put them in that situation.” But I thought a bit longer, feeling very committed to parenting with positive responses when possible (and -ugh- I really need to work on this again!). I realized we would almost always be happy to share, so why not give it a try with this family? I encouraged Charlie to go ask that child if it was alright to take a turn. I modeled the words for him at his developmental level first, “Turn with tricycle, please?” and we walked hand-in-hand together to the little boy and his mom. Charlie asked but wasn’t understood (darn toddler articulation), so I repeated his request. And you know what? They said, “Sure!” Then they asked to borrow a shovel Charlie brought. Both kids were happy as they learned the benefits of requesting and sharing in the best, most tangible way for that moment.

That decision seemed so small at the time but it has impacted our everyday life with kids in a pretty dramatic way. In hindsight I realize that we were making a choice to embrace and trust our immediate community, wherever we were, whether we knew them or not. We were allowing other people to be responsible for their own boundaries instead of assuming the worst and deciding not to “bother” them. We were also taking the risk that the boys would be turned down, and that we could all survive the sad cries that would ensue. They’d be alright, I’d be alright. The risk was worth it.

This attitude has allowed our boys to experience an incredible array of fun situations, activities and toys that they would’ve otherwise been steered away from. I’d guess that 99% of people respond positively. I realize this seems so simple and obvious, but in my countless experiences at playgrounds and other venues since making this choice, I find that it is very unusual for caregivers to allow children to ask others to explore something, borrow things or take turns if it requires interacting with strangers.

With our oldest, this increased confidence with approaching and asking others has generalized to him being very comfortable talking with most adults, handling transactions in a marketplace with ease, and being willing to share how he’d prefer for situations to be handled. It has led to Charlie feeling comfortable asking random construction workers if he could sit in their vehicle’s cabs, countless dogs being pet by Miles, snacks being shared, cockpits being viewed. We could wait and hope people will see the little boys’ longing eyes and be willing to offer, but now I much prefer they take the lead when possible..

I think it is really empowering. It allows them to make specific requests regarding their genuine interests as they’re out and about, not just what caregivers think they’ll find cool. Most adults love fulfilling a little child’s request. They love hearing the little voice ask them, seeing their wide-eyes and smiles during the experience, and receiving a lovely little two year old “fank you!” afterwards. I encourage my boys to request their own special treats when we hit our local doughnut shop or favorite bakery. Initially (in the late ones and early twos), both boys needed me to walk them through protocol. “First we wait in line. It’s not our turn yet. When it’s our turn, you can ask.” [Wait, wait, wait. Ack! This is taking forever. Hold on, child.] “Now you can ask for it.” Miles still needs some models and sometimes the vocabulary for what he wants, Charlie often needs a reminder to say “please”. I usually try to whisper it in his ear with hopes that my reminder doesn’t embarrass him, as he’s getting to that age. But let me tell you, they get the best responses from the employees. Everyone wins- the boys are confident and pleased with themselves, the employees get a serious dose of cuteness. I get to take in the sweetness of it all.

PS: If you’re too worried about stranger-danger to try this, I think this website might have some good advice for you. FYI- I’m there all the time and don’t allow any dangerous requests to be fulfilled.

Literacy’s Highly Underrated /f/ Word

“Would you like green eggs and ham? Would you like them, Sam I am?”

“There’s a wocket in my pocket!”

Dr. Seuss was a genius, pulling young children into his colorful, adventurous stories by playing with words. It turns out, the ability to hear sounds in words and manipulate them is one of the most important skills for literacy development. This makes him doubly cool in my book- his stories draw children in with whimsy while simultaneously reinforcing part of the very skill that will allow them to someday read books on their own.

Rhyming is just one component of phonological awareness. It also includes being able to hear individual words within sentences, break apart compound words, segment syllables, blend sounds into words and hear individual sounds within a word. (Moving in difficulty from larger chunks of sounds to the individual sounds and then being able to manipulate those individual sounds.)

With all the focus on learning the names of the letters of the alphabet, one might think this was more important than the sounds in words for literacy development. Amazingly enough, one could technically learn to read without knowing the names of letters. However, if one has difficulty hearing the sounds in words, reading will be incredibly difficult and require special instruction. In fact, the inability or decreased ability to detect sounds in words is a main component of dyslexia. “The best predictor of reading difficulty in kindergarten or first grade is the inability to segment words and syllables into constituent sound units.”* It is truly the sounds that matter. They provide the foundation.

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Two boys on a beach. On a beach! Where’ my ____? (Did you say leech or peach or something else? I say margarita.)

To be able to read a child must be able to assign a particular sound to a letter, and eventually to a group of letters. This is a completely arbitrary task for kids who can’t do this. They either become gifted sight word readers (unusual) or very frustrated (more common). Therefore, a child is typically not ready to read if they can’t hear individual sounds in words. For example, they should be able to discern that the word “cat” is composed of three sounds: /k/ /æ/ /t/. Blended sounds (like /bl/, /dr/, /br/, /sl/, etc…) are harder to break apart and will come later. English makes all of this more difficult because it doesn’t assign just one letter to each sound. Instead, we have /f/ represented by f and ph, and all the other ridiculous spellings like -ow, -igh, and -ough.

(A litte side rant. I have had several clients and friends tell me their kids’ teachers denied that dyslexia even existed. This makes me fume because it means many kids with less persistent parents don’t get the help they need. Dyslexia is a language-based learning disability. It most definitely exists. I have diagnosed it, worked with kids with mild to severe challenges, and taught them phonological awareness only to see them begin to read after years of intense struggling. If a teacher or someone else tells you that dyslexia isn’t possible for your child, seek other opinions. They are wrong- it’s certainly a possibility. If you suspect your child has difficulty with phonological awareness, please seek help from a speech-language pathologist. The sooner the better. Early intervention can make an enormous difference. Early treatment can be what allows your child to view reading and spelling as something they can do and enjoy. Otherwise, sadly, reading runs the risk of becoming a massive, painful, seemingly impossible, embarrassing hurdle. But, it’s never too late for good intervention to make a difference.)

Kids who are typically developing will naturally improve their phonological awareness skills. So, this isn’t something I would recommend parents rush with kids- the progression happens with time. Because hearing sounds in words is a precursor to reading, I think some parents who highly value early reading skills might want to speed things along. There’s really not much point in that. Just like you can’t make a baby crawl until they’re ready. Once they’re crawling, sure- encourage them. Give them plenty of opportunity. Put them on hills and on grass. But, seriously, don’t move their arms and legs to try to force the issue when they can’t even hold their head up yet.

So, with that caveat, how do you celebrate phonological awareness while reading to and playing with kids? (Celebrate? What?! Well, I guess I want to promote the idea that this is just as worthy of cheering for as walking. Playing around with these skills is the language equivalent of encouraging a kid to walk on uneven ground.) Learning the alphabet letter names is cool and all, but kids get inundated with it from the alphabet song, Sesame Street, Chicka Chicka Boom Boom and tons of other shows and books. Apart from the rhyming books, there are not many popular mediums that focus on actively playing with sounds.

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I’m on a beach holding a worm. It’s not a worm, you silly, it’s ___? (Kelp! But you want to say something else, right?)

To help fill that gap, here are some ideas for fun ways to integrate activities that promote phonological awareness into your play and reading times:

*Play rhyming games. Oh, trust me, I know how old this can get. But it is soooo good for your kids! Charlie loves this one that (I think) he made up: “I have a friend named tenguin who loves to play with his penguin.” “I know a girl named Zoga who continuously does yoga.” Charlie and all willing adults and peers in his vicinity take turns making up the rhymes. We have been playing this game for a year and a half. We are patient souls and usually trapped in our car. I think Harry and I usually cut him off after about ten or twenty rounds of rhymes these days but he’d probably go on for hours and we just can’t take it anymore. (Grandparents, come visit soon!)

*While reading books that rhyme, pause and allow your child the chance to guess at what word rhymes with the previous phrase. When your child can guess correctly, they are likely using the stories context (pictures) as well as the words they’ve heard to choose a correct rhyming word. For example, “Would you like it with a fox? I would not like it with a fox. Would you like it in a [pause]…” They will see the pictured box on the page and with this cue, as well as the previously heard “fox”, kids at this level of development with phonological awareness will be able to guess correctly.

*With kids as young as two, you can start playing silly word games that help them focus on the differences in words. Miles loves little games like “Bear is going to eat your toes! Bear is going to eat your nose!” in which a stuffed animal playfully goes after his body. I can pause and let him pick the body part. I can throw some completely made-up word in to make him giggle even more. “Bear’s going to eat your flippity-flop!” I’ll pause, look at him, and then say “Flippity-flop?! What’s that?! Maybe he wants your blippity-blop. No? Slippity-slop? etc…”

*Develop a sense of rhythm through music, musical books, books with rhyming and books with cadence. Sing, dance, shake a rattle, shake your bootie. Songs that provide opportunity for children to fill in a word, like “Old McDonald” are really enjoyable for them. “Old McDonald had a [pause]”. After hearing that song a lot, both our boys like to fill in that gap as early as 18-months. You can build on their listening skills by throwing in your own silly make believe animal and crazy noises every once in awhile. “Old McDonald had a zlug.”

*This website has about a million other activities at various levels.

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Doesn’t feel so very far, until it’s two hours in a car. Rhyming here, rhyming there. Thank goodness we’re done. Soaking in the sun.

If you don’t know where your kid is at with these skills, start with the easiest activities. Keeping an eye on their level of frustration is also a good guideline. If they’re having enjoying themselves, laughing at times and a little bit challenged, you’re probably at an appropriate level. If they’re frustrated, back up a little bit or provide them more examples. Truth is, many of these skills will probably come one way or another if your child doesn’t have any developmental challenges. Again, I wanted to share this information not to get people to try to rush the process and get their kids reading by three, but to help you understand the foundation that needs to be in place before you begin reading activities.

Last warning. I am not an advocate of “drill and kill” types of activities and there’s always the chance a well-meaning parent, worried about literacy, will take playful activities and make them obligatory- something that needs to be checked off each day. I think this should be fun and if it’s not, take a step back. If you’re stressed about your kids learning these skills, I suggest that you might have concerns your child isn’t learning what they should be or with as much pleasure as others. Seeking professional help might give you the ease you need- either because your child is getting services to help them develop these skills or you were told all is progressing as expected. If you have a four year old who doesn’t find rhyming fun, doesn’t make up rhymes, and doesn’t seem to “get it”, I highly recommend having a speech-language pathologist screen or evaluate their phonological awareness skills.

One of my next posts will be about teaching kids how to read. If you have any specific questions you’d like me to address, please leave them in the comments section.

*Lyon, G. R. (1995). Toward a definition of dyslexia. Annals of Dyslexia, 45, 3-27

Using Language to Reduce Meltdowns and Tantrums

I am a woman who often likes control and has battled a lifelong tendency towards perfectionism. The more tired or stressed I am, the more calm and collected I want things to be. My first time trying something new usually stresses me out because I don’t want to mess up or not do as well as I’d hoped. The first hurdle is always the hardest for me and then I usually glide along until I hit a new, bigger one or see the finish line. I’ve learned that this part of me is quite rooted in anxiety. I am also self-classified as a “highly-sensitive person”, which plays itself out in a variety of ways, including me being very aware of how everyone around me is feeling and anticipating problems and needs before they arise. There’s a lot more to say about all that, but now I just give you this hint of my background to help you understand a bit of why I have even thought of these things to begin with.

So, toddlers and young children who are tantrumming stress me out a bit, particularly my own. Especially when we’re not sleeping well at night.

Having had a lot of experience with children, and having studied child development- mainly communication skills- I foresaw a few of the developmental hurdles that would be particularly challenging as my first baby turned toddler. I knew turn-taking could be really tough. I also knew delayed gratification and waiting for certain toys or food would be hard. Lastly, I knew how frequently a child’s lack of understanding could cause a communication breakdown which would usually result in that child getting upset or tantrumming.

Using Language to Reduce Meltdowns and Tantrums

( Don’t let his sweetness fool you. He doesn’t want to share. Not even with the monkeys.)

So, when Charlie was six to nine months or so, I started modeling language for him to help him understand the concept of taking turns. I wanted to provide the words and concept before the problem had actually come to fruition. The scenario would be something like this:

Me (while holding drumsticks, ready to show him my awesome skills): “Mama’s going to drum!”*

Charlie watches and eventually expresses an interest by babbling or trying to grab the drumsticks or squealing with excitement.

Me: “Ok! Charlie’s turn!”

Charlie gets to drum away.

Me (pick up maracas): “I’m going to shake my maracas.” Oh, yeah.

Charlie stops drumming and requests the maracas.

Me: “Ok, first mama, then Charlie.” I shake them a little longer, making him hold out a bit, but keeping the interaction positive and successful. “Charlie’s turn! Can mama have a turn with the drums again?”

We trade. You get the idea.

Basically, I made taking turns fun. I emphasized the words “turn” and “first X, then Y.” And I would model this language for him a lot. Babies and toddlers need tons of repetition to learn something. You will be bored with it long before they are. (Have you hidden a book yet because you just can’t read it again? We have several that go into hiding for a month or two.)

Later, when Joey wants to play with Charlie’s trains, Charlie can understand that Joey wants a turn and then he will get a turn again. I can remind him with that language he’s heard over and over again, “First Joey gets a turn, then Charlie.” He doesn’t think the world is going to end when his train leaves his hands. Because kids think this. They crumble to pieces thinking they have lost their favorite train forever. And life without Thomas would be so, so sad. It’s like how I feel if you take my chocolate truffle, except I know I won’t see that truffle again. Please don’t do this to me.

I would bet that teaching the “first, then” concept has probably been our most effective language-based** tantrum reducer. Young children have such a hard time understanding that something is still going to happen even though something else needs to take place first. Plus, waiting is really freakin’ hard. So, they hear playground!, get totally excited to go and then absolutely freak out when you try to get them dressed first. You can remind them, “First clothes on, then playground.” It also provides awesome leverage for when kids hate getting changed, dressed, into car seats or strollers or other strapped in devices. “First car seat, then FUN (toy, food, music, high-five)!” “First diaper, then soccer!”

This is best taught in playful ways, just like turn-taking, and integrated into all your normal everyday situations. “Oooh, first we get to eat carrots (as you set them down), then I’m going to cut some cheese slices!” It can be as simple as playing with blocks (“First I’m using the red block, then I’m stacking the blue block”) or airplane (“First, on my feet, then, up in the air!”).

Please don’t get me wrong. I may not like tantrums, but I also understand that there is a time and place for children to experience disappointment and have to learn boundaries. I don’t try to shield my children from all challenges. I don’t think I’d be doing them any favors by sparing them disappointment and obstacles. But, I find that normal life scenarios bring up plenty. People get sick, budgets constrain, weather prevents plans, toys break, mom doesn’t let you use the chef’s knife, food doesn’t taste as we hope, etc… None of us need to add extra challenges during regular, routine moments like leaving a fun place or getting into a car if a little talking through it at their level will help.

Additionally, we have expectations for our boys. They both clean up after themselves and help out around the house and yard. Even at two-years old, Miles knows how to clean up and actually has been able to (to a degree) for a year! He doesn’t always want to, but he can do it with most of his toys and will usually come around if we structure it right. (“Let’s clean up so we can go ride our scooters before bedtime!” We have to be willing to have that awful, sad moment of him not getting to go ride his scooter on occasions that he doesn’t pitch in, but you can bet that’s all he needs to do it from them on, at least for a week or two.) It’s all about motivation and consistency.

I’d probably be very rich if I could guarantee this will work 100% of the time. It won’t. You know that, I’m sure. But, if children are well-rested and well-fed, this strategy will help mitigate and decrease the number of less than pleasant moments that make you want to pull your hair out and wear earplugs.

*Maybe you’re wondering why the heck I am not using pronouns talking to babies and young toddlers. Pronouns are pretty confusing to little ones- they really don’t understand them. I’ve found that their comprehension is aided by using proper names for the first year, often first two. If you’re keyed into your child’s understanding, you’ll know when switching back to “I” and “you” isn’t a problem for them. And, please, for the sake of all our ears, switch back. Nothing’s weirder than somebody talking to a four year old this way.

**Best ways to prevent tantrums: feed your children healthy food on a regular schedule, make sure you children get the sleep they need. These are pretty hard to argue with. Meals, naps, and bedtimes are ridiculously sacred in our house.

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!”

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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.

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:

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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.