Parents: Listening *is* Connecting Part Two – Pre-Verbal Children

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

depends (largely)

on how well we listen to them.

(This is officially how I help put food on the table. If you’ve found this article useful, please feel free to use the Koha button just above my blogroll. Even the smallest amount is appreciated. 🙂 )

About Karyn @ kloppenmum

kloppenmum is me, Karyn Van Der Zwet, mother of three and ex-teacher. I'm part of a revolution in parenting, with the aim to raise mature (not sophisticated) and self-assured children. I also know some stuff about adults. I have also had articles printed in The Journal for The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (Children and Young People) and the US parenting magazine, Pathways to Family Wellness, as well I regularly write for World Moms Blog (named as one of the Forbes 100 most useful blogs for women 2012 &2013). You can follow me on facebook (kloppenmum) pinterest (Karyn at Kloppenmum) and twitter (@kloppenmum). I'm also vaguely on LinkedIn (Karyn Van Der Zwet). Thanks to Joe (Mr Hare) for taking the photo. Cheers, son: xxxx.
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8 Responses to Parents: Listening *is* Connecting Part Two – Pre-Verbal Children

  1. I am so glad I came across this post, as Hubby and I were beginning to be worried about my 14 month old still not talking. Is it normal for 14 months old to go about just hemming and hawing and not say any words? Since you have had 3 kids, maybe you can give me some insight into this.
    he certainly understands what we say – for instance, if I ask him to put something back somewhere, he does that. Or if I can’t find something and ask him where it is, he usually starts looking under the tables and chairs in an attempt to find it.

    • I think it’s perfectly normal for a 14 month old not to be speaking, and the fact that he understands shows you that things are on track. Children who are being raised bilingual or multilingual (like you’re raising your son, I think) do tend to be later to speak – just because there is so much information for them to process. If you want to do something that will speed up his use of language: you could listen to his baby-noises and see if you can recognise what he is trying to tell you; repeat back what you think he’s said; and then build on it slightly. Eg. He says, booog, you say: yes, that’s a dog, dog’s say woof… If you pick up on what *he’s telling you* – it all goes faster. Good luck. I’m sure it’ll all be fine. 🙂

  2. helpingmums says:

    Well said! I agree with you. I knew what both my children were saying from a very young age, well before they could talk. It is important to encourage talking even when you know what they are saying as they can get to rely on parents knowing what they want to say.
    With my 2nd child, we got to the point where I consciously had to encourage him to use his words and speak for himself. His big sister was speaking for him and automatically getting him what he wanted. We had to teach her to hold back and encourage him to ask.
    They both speak so well now, it’s hard to get a word in haha

    • I keep reminding myself that the world needs more articulate men: when our boys talk so much that I can’t get a word in! I think we fell into the trap of accepting our no.3’s sound effects instead of words, he’s now really taking off with his speech – because we’re concentrating on getting him to say the words as much as possible. It does amaze me how many parents talk at their children, and don’t listen properly! Thanks for commenting. I love it when people do. 🙂

      • helpingmums says:

        Agree about articulate men, parenting is such a responsible job – We are raising furture generations. I am so proud of my boy – even though he is only 4. He talks so well, and he explains his feelings.. (hope he still does when he is older.)

        • I’m sure he will – I think once we start on the path of naming emotions, it’s easy to continue. We have a ritual of lying with our boys while they go to sleep (or are almost asleep); our nine year-old tells me all his emotional stuff just as he’s drifting off it’s an awesome opportunity for me to support what he is working out for himself. Articulate does make my ears sore some days though. 😉

  3. There are so many gimmick products & gurus out there to make kids “smarter” yet the best way they learn are by being a kid (playing) and having a loving home with parents (as you just wrote about) who listen to them and respond to their needs/communication. These fads totally freak me out, as does the news media with their fear-inducing stories on kids & health issues.
    Baby signing is great if you have the time to invest, (I’m really bad at memorizing that stuff!), but they use sign language anyway!
    As for language development….here is an encouraging story: one of my husband’s brothers didn’t speak hardly anything until he was THREE! They took him to a speech pathologist and worried endlessly. Well, it all worked out. He began talking in his own good time and today he has a PhD and has an amazing job in education. One of the smartest people I know. Maybe he didn’t talk for the first three years because he was busy……thinking? 🙂
    Thank you Mum for another wonderful post!

    • You’re welcome. I think there are children for whom their internal dialogue is very strong. I didn’t speak until I was nearly three either, and I suspect my Mum was over-talking and under-listening…:)
      And yes I too am freaked out by all of the supposed ‘educational’ or ‘intellect enhancing’ toys/entertainment and the scare tactics involved in marketing. Good point.

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