Parents often don’t think about the need to ‘listen’ to their pre-verbal children. They can’t talk after all! And even the ‘experts’ often don’t understand the dynamics of the communication which takes place between pre-verbal kids and those around them.
For example, our current Kiwi parenting guru, Nigel Latta, is extremely dismissive of people who use baby sign-language. Possibly because he hasn’t tried it with his own kids. Possibly because he’s focussed on the hot-housing outcome, which is often mentioned in the relevant advertising. That is, children who are taught and use baby-sign language tend to speak earlier than their contemporaries and these advances continue throughout their school life.
But parents who focus on using baby-sign language with their children in order to accelerate the child’s academic progress are often disappointed in the results. How frustrating for them when they see other baby-signing children do speak earlier and continue to make great progress in the verbal-linguistic area of their learning! So what’s going on?
Parents I’ve said it before, and no-doubt I will continue to harp on about it:
Children communicate more through their body-language than they do through speech.
I think of it like this: done properly baby-sign language has the side-effect of increasing a child’s academic ability in verbal-linguistic subjects like Oral Language, Reading and Writing. The real core result is better communication between the child and parent. Baby-signing is about them telling us what’s going on. It’s about connection and communication. The parents who use baby-sign language to ‘teach’ miss the point – their kids might have a great internal dialogue, but they won’t speak early. This approach is all about the parent’s need for an academically capable child - not the child’s need to connect and communicate. (These parents are caught up in what I call the Academic Panic- type it into my search engine and you’ll find the relevant posts.)
Babies who have experienced their parents responding to their non-verbal signals and cries - feel connected. Their parents ‘listen‘ to them and respond appropriately (most often) meeting the need they were trying to communicate. Toddlers who have parents that respond to their body-language (through formal baby-signing or just because they are attuned enough to understand the child’s own signs) feel connected. Their parents ‘listen‘ to them and respond appropriately - (most often) meeting the need they were trying to communicate. .
We were reasonably responsive and attuned parents so why, out of our three boys, did only one speak in full sentences (clearly understood by other adults) by 18 months of age? Well temperament comes into play, too. Two of our boys are naturally adventurous, one is not. Mr Hare naturally had more one-on-one time with me because he was our only child for three and a bit years. He was happy to go away and play alone for periods of time, he didn’t have me constantly looking out to see what he wanted or needed. He wasn’t communicating his needs to me all the time. Mr Owl was firmly attached to my body pretty well all of the first 18 months of his life. He wasn’t able to leave me to play alone for any time, let alone a long time. I was constantly trying to work out what he needed or was trying to communicate to me. He was the one who spoke well by 18 months of age. Mr Butterfly (21 months ) is our third and will be our latest to speak (although he does damned fine sound effects!). He is the most naturally content child we’ve had. He will spend up to an hour in the sandpit or just mucking about (on a good day) alone , so doesn’t have the constant need to be understood. He’s trying to not communicate with me all the time.
Other children who have had multiply ear-infections or physical issues with their ears may have speech difficulties learning to speak too. It’s something to be aware of and get on to (with professional help) as soon as you can.
Another group of children who are often slow to speak are those who are raised in bilingual or multi-lingual families. The children *are* processing, and will show thorough their behaviour that they understand, but they might not actually speak until later than their monolingual peers.
Understanding our babies and toddlers is only part of the story, of course. Our children need to hear real speech and conversation (not electronic) in order to learn how to speak well themselves. The more words they hear in context, the better. Also, the more complex words they hear in context, the better. Exposure to a high level of vocabulary provides children with the internal dialogue they need to ‘map’ their world. (Children who have parents who do this well, but aren’t so good at ‘listening’ will speak well, but later.)
Reading and telling multiple stories also helps, as most of us already know. The best approach to reading picture books involves the parents asking the children what they can know about the story, pictures etc – more often than the parents providing information.
The running commentary that many parents do when their children are pre-verbal also helps develop a solid internal dialogue. The degree it is effective depends on the parents’ ability to enter their child’s world. For example:
“You’re picking up that piece of wood. It’s heavy. You’re putting it on the other side of the trailer. There’s another piece of wood. What are you doing with that? Oh, I see, you’re stacking it on top of the other one.”
Children also benefit from the scaffolding approach, which most parents also use without realising it. That is, the child says one word, the parent says two words or a short sentence. The child strings two words together, the parents say three words or a short sentence. The child says three words, the parents respond with a whole sentence.
Mr Butterfly is at the two/three word stage so our conversations might go something like this:
Mr B: “Daddy gone.”
Me : “Yes, Daddy’s gone to work.”
Mr B: “Me shoes out.”
Me : “You want your shoes on, so you can go outside?”
Children benefit hugely from having warm and responsive parents. This makes them feel connected, and in the long run connected children are happier, more mature and easier to manage than those who aren’t. Part of the journey of developing great emotional connections comes from how well we listen to what our children are trying to communicate to us. Yes, even when they are pre-verbal.
Listen first, parents. Enter their world and engage, second. Expose them to lots of different conversations. Then and only then work on adding to their vocabulary.
How connected our kids feel to us
on how well we listen to them.
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