Tag Archives: vocabulary

Passing on my phobias

I’m extremely emotional today and over-caffeinated, both of which may be important details in this story. Also, Seattle is about to fry. No one has air conditioning and we’re preparing for a string in the 90s. Most of us start to complain when it tops 70. Since we can’t leave our windows open at night and still feel safe, we open everything up in the early morning to cool the house down. This morning, I headed to close our back door right as A RAT was trying to ENTER my HOUSE!

A RAT! My house! It may be a little my fault, time to vacuum and mop, but oh my god! A rat!

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The part of the rat that grosses me out most. If it had been facing us, the story might end differently.

I screamed. It ran and hid behind a box filled with broken outdoor toys we haven’t discarded. I slammed the door like a grizzly bear was about to eat me. Charlie and Miles learned about “eebie-jeebies” and watched me shriek and shake my jitters out all around the house. They didn’t seem to care much. They didn’t even ask to see the rat.

Gathering my composure, I continued to close up the house. After I shut the boys’ bedroom windows, which requires me climbing on top of Miles’ bed, I stepped down only to encounter this scene in Charlie’s loft bed:

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I screamed again. Then I laughed.

I knew the day would come when Samuel Bearded would scare the shit out of me. Today was the day. (Yes, we discovered his real name! It’s written on the tranverse plane between his neck and his former body!)

Interrupting the boys, this time to tell them of my adventure with Samuel, Miles giggled with pride, “I did that!” It worked, kiddo. It worked.

“So boys, want to see the rat?” I regretted asking immediately, but knew I had to face this fear. I needed to water my garden. There were raspberries to harvest. I might as well have moral support.

I opened the door. It was still there.

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As they watched, I pushed the box with a broom, anticipating the rat would run under the garden shed. Nope. Too easy. Instead it jumped onto our grill and hid under the cover.

“Aw, it’s cute!” Charlie gushed.

Shit. They make nests in grills. I didn’t think that was going to happen, but I didn’t want it getting cozy there, either.

I tapped at the cover with the broom. Nothing. I wiggled the grill with the broom. Aware that the boys are watching me, I was saying things like, “Just a little earthquake, rat! Come on out.” Nothing. It wasn’t budging.

The friggin’ rat was going to make me take the cover off.

I made a lot of nervous noises and grossed out faces while the boys observed from inside. I walked towards the cover and backed away. A few times. I asked Charlie if he wanted to do it. Nope.

Mustering up my courage and wanting to show the boys a good example (ha!), I approached, trying to pull it off like a magician pulling a tablecloth out from under dishes. The surprised rat tumbled off the handle, onto the cement and hid between a few of my potted plants.

“Oh, it’s SO cute!” Charlie exclaimed. Again.

I heard a quick whooshing noise and slammed the door again. “What was that?” “Did it come in?” Charlie looked around. “No, I don’t think so.” Clearly, I’m nuts. As if the rat would come back towards us. What, while wearing a cape to make a noise like that? Sheesh.

I went to open the door again but Charlie pleaded, “No, don’t open it!”

Rats. (Bwa-ha-ha. It had to be used.) I passed my fear to him. Just like that.

“Oh, honey. It’s fine. I’m sorry I scared you. I’m afraid of rats but they’re really more scared of us and won’t hurt us if we give them space.”

I opened the door, peeked at the pots and saw the rat tail. In my panic, I had thrown the cover back on top of the grill as the rat dropped. The cover must’ve fallen to the ground and made that noise. I shooed the rat away from the plants and checked in with the boys, who were still watching me with growing curiosity. “Yay! It’s gone!” I faked a little cheer.

“Are you alright?” Charlie asked me with genuine concern, but also a little smirk. I don’t think he’s ever asked me this question with that look on his face. He saw a little of the crazy in his mama. At least he found it funny.

I watered my plants and picked my berries with a hyper vigilant eye, all while thinking, “I bet that rat comes back. It probably likes berries.” Then I went inside and told the boys yet again, this time calmly and collected, that rats aren’t to be feared. (Hahahahaha.) We shouldn’t pet city rats, but they can certainly touch pet rats.

“Yes, people have rats as pets…”

“Oh, I’m glad you think they’re cute, Charlie, but no.”

Never. Ever.

Some days, when emotions are high, you just may pass on your phobias to your kids. Or, if you’re really lucky, they’ll want one as a pet.

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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)

First graders and “The F-Word”

Mom stirred a steaming pot while I anticipated our spaghetti dinner. My older brother joked around on the phone, his speaking range limited to within-kitchen-hearing-distance because it was the mid-1980s. (You know, cord phones!) During my brother’s friendly argument he loudly exclaimed, “BS!”, which was followed by my mom quickly shooting him a look that signaled to me with her eyes. She clearly wanted him to pay attention that I was around. Intrigued, I began pestering. “What does BS mean?” Mom tried to dodge it, “Oh, Kathleen. You’ll find out soon enough.” Dave cut in with, “Bologna stuffings” and my mom laughed. Initially doubtful, I questioned them further, but they banded together and held strong. Probably because I was six, I believed them.

Naive and gullible, I vehemently defended myself ALL THE WAY TO JUNIOR HIGH. One day while confidently standing by Bologna Stuffings, the laughter from my group of friends pushed through my wall of certainty. I realized they were right. My stomach sank with embarrassment and anger. I had been duped.

I’d guess that it was a common American belief in the 1980s among suburban white families that young kids shouldn’t be exposed to the details of potentially threatening aspects of life, including sex, alcohol, racism, and cussing.  As a preschooler and elementary school child, the only social topic I remember being explicitly taught was “Stranger Danger.” (Did you also hide behind bushes when all vans without windows passed?) All of the other topics remained off-limits, though we were inevitably exposed to them on television screens, bathroom stall walls, bus rides, and playground conversations. Among parents and children, though, silence reigned.

With each passing year of parenting, my conviction grows stronger that silence leads to stigma and taboo. The absence of a conversation about any potentially awkward, embarrassing or painful topic makes my children think that it is not to be discussed at home. If I’m not willing to share my embarrassing moments, my child won’t either. If I am not willing to engage in conversations about race, my child will not either. If I won’t talk to them about sex, they won’t either. I believe that a very important part of my job is to not only field these questions and enter a developmentally appropriate conversation, but to also bring topics up should the kids not do so. (Not all kids are inquisitive out loud. Some are so naive they don’t know what they should know. Like those who believe in Bologna Stuffings. Or Santa at age twelve.)

So, when Charlie asked me what “the F-word” was while walking home after just days of being in first grade, I knew I didn’t want to dodge the question. Miles was with us at the time, though, so I told him we could talk about it when we were alone. (Miles was three and showing far too much pleasure in testing boundaries for me to risk him knowing the word fuck. We recently took a walk around our neighborhood lake and he called a passing old man a “blockhead.” Miles was tired and hungry- apparently one wrong look was enough to send him over the edge. “Welcome to Seattle, sir! He’s the three-year-old welcoming committee!”)

I forgot to continue the conversation after Miles went to bed, and a few months passed before Charlie brought it up again while we were alone. I knew it was time to seize the opportunity, so I proceeded slowly with some thought and care. Knowing his tendency to follow rules was comforting to me. He wasn’t the kid who would use the word willy-nilly, nor use it against us in a power play. Because he is more cautious, I wanted to make sure that the primary message was that he could come to me with these things. I was trusting him, and he could trust me.

While trying my best to maintain a calm tone because I was uncomfortable with the novelty of saying fuck in front of my six-year-old son, I told him that it’s another word for sex (which he knows about) but that it’s most often used to be mean or express anger. My words went something like, “People say “Fuck you” when they’re really angry but it hurts people’s feelings. People also say it when they’re upset about something.” He asked a few questions and then tried to use it. That was funny. Even funnier when he tried it a few weeks later while giggling about jokes with Harry and I (after Miles went to bed). He uttered the most innocent, cute “fuck” I’ve ever heard. He hasn’t used it since.

Of course, our discussion came with warnings. I told him that because it’s a word that upsets many people, we have to be very careful with it. I told him that until he’s old enough to use it appropriately, he shouldn’t say it anywhere except when he’s alone with Harry and I. I also admonished him to never, ever, EVER say it in front of his brother, the King-of-Stupid-and-Blockhead-Name Calling (thank you, Charlie Brown). The last thing I needed was Miles regularly saying “Fuck you!” to the cute old men strolling the lake.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not currently feeling the need to introduce all cuss words to Charlie. We certainly don’t have a checklist that we’re working through. (He is also not ready for conversations about the many horrific, violent acts that occur in the world!) I imagine he’ll bring swearing up again shortly, and certainly be exposed to to plenty of the world’s horror soon enough. We are tackling these topics one developmentally-appropriate bite at a time. But I am thankful that along with sex and race, he knows he can talk to us about swear words.

I realize that we might offend a few people by having this discussion so young. He might even teach a few classmates about these topics. He certainly wouldn’t be the first kid to break such news to another kid. At least he’d be sparing them from it happening in middle school. (No child wants to be defending “Fiddlesticks” in the halls.) Either way, it’s a risk I’m willing to take to maintain open lines of communication in our home.

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.

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.

Nurturing a Love of Books

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Parents are reminded ad nauseum to read to their children from day one. I swear, while mom and dad fearfully prepare to take their newborn home for the first time, a nurse slips you a pamphlet on the importance of reading to your child. You don’t know the basics of feeding and changing your child yet and they’re already making you feel guilty for not reading to them enough. You are reminded of this all over the media and at every pediatric appointment. Often there aren’t any strategies laid out for how to encourage a love of books, particularly with babies.

Some of our natural inclinations for reading to children can actually lead to bored, squirmy babies who no longer want to be a part of storytime. Some caregivers believe they need to read every word in a book because of a misleading notion that language develops best if we speak with complexity to babies. Others don’t want their baby to move or interrupt during the story. Thankfully, most remember to show the baby the pictures of the book and don’t attempt Charlotte’s Web with a six month old! I’ve heard “my baby doesn’t like books” from many of my friends and acquaintances and I think it’s often because their storytime approach is better suited to older children.

I approach storytime with little babies by completely following their lead. A baby just a few months old will give you clues as to what interests them with their eyes. So, I rarely read the printed word. If they are staring at a pictured light, I talk about it. This is often as simple as saying, “Oooh, light. That’s a nice light.” while emphasizing the word light, and letting them look as long as they maintain interest. Parentese is ubiquitous across cultures; it serves the purpose of allowing babies to learn the sounds of their native language better. Just as we adapt our speech when talking to babies, we need to do it with our language while reading with them.

There are very few books with language simple enough to please a baby, so I adapt most to meet them at their level. A few that I rarely change are Goodnight Moon or Pat the Bunny. We will sit with individual pages as long as the baby desires. We might talk about the kittens for five minutes, meowing and pretending to pet them.

I might adapt a book like Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by imitating the animals after each question: “Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see? Roar roar roar roar roar, roar roar roar roar.” (Count the roars there. I know the book by heart.) Eventually I’ll adapt back to the written word, but this quickly draws the babies in and helps them associate the sound with the animal they’re looking at.

My youngest, as a one year old, would turn pages through several books as quickly as possible until we hit his favorite page. The exciting part for him was just interacting with the book, so I would read quickly or simplify the words depending on the type of book and we’d go back and forth between that page and the next over and over again to his heart’s content. The sweet spot in Goodnight, Gorilla is when the zookeeper’s wife turns on the light and finds the gorilla lying there in bed. He still loves this page because my husband and I always make a shocked, silly gasp and dramatically exclaim something like, “Oh! Gorilla!!! What are you doing in my bed?”

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It is important to remember that the goal is enjoy yourselves while exploring books, not to finish the book or read every sentence. Time with books should provide a dedicated time together seeing new things, labeling new words, talking simply about what’s interesting. It can be a launching pad for a longer conversation about a single picture or topic, returning to finish the book another day. If a child is tired of a book, just close it and move on to a different one, even if you’re on page one. If they need to run around the room and just check in every once in awhile while you read, let them. Be silly, make the book interactive, keep your language simple, and vary your pitch a lot. Most babies will not be interested in every word of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, but they will love touching the holes in the book and probably delight in hearing silly eating noises while you try to nibble their fingers or toes.

If you’ve been having challenges reading to a baby or toddler, give these strategies a shot. A baby with a strong built-in aversion to books will need some serious playtime with the first few books, maybe even the first few hundred books. Make sure that baby knows you are going to have FUN and storytime has changed. Make crazy animal noises while looking at pictures, get a puppet, stuffed animal, doll, or other favorite toy to read, or whatever other silly idea you have to make it clear the routine is different now.

For example, as a toddler, our oldest wanted his stuffed robot to read his books every time for at least a year. We made up a monotone robot voice and read every book that way. When he wanted to talk about the book or ask questions he would say, “No, robot talk,” if we used our voice. We would have to answer him in the robot voice and have the robot point to things. He and the robot had many stimulating conversations, let me tell you.

After a few experiences with the new and improved storytime, I imagine your child will be bringing books to your side to request a reading. Give it a try, follow their lead, and see how much more pleasant it is. I hope you will find this makes reading more pleasurable for both the adult and child.