Childhood: The User’s Manual
Chapter 4. Talking. (This part is really cool.)_
Let’s back up for a minute. Why did you have a baby anyway (other than by accident, which is how quite a few babies get here)? Please don’t say that it was to have somebody who would love you, because if that’s what you’re hoping for, you’re screwed. The baby will probably love you while he’s a baby, because they’re programmed to do that, but they aren’t programmed to love you forever. They are programmed to grow up and love video games for a long time, & then to love bad TV, and then eventually to love the Wrong Sort of Girl, & if you’re lucky they may come visit you in the nursing home. Your job is to love the baby, & then encourage him to grow up. And please don’t say it was to have somebody to live out your unfulfilled dreams, because if that’s the motivation you are not only going to end up disappointed, but also they won’t visit you in the nursing home because they’ll be pissed off at your selfish expectations. Babies start right out with their own personalities, which are different from yours. They have their own expectations and goals and needs, which will emerge increasingly if you don’t stifle them, & will emerge eventually even if you do.
But a good reason to have a baby is that it is the most interesting, challenging, stimulating thing you will ever do, and the first payoff comes when they begin to learn to talk. In the first year you worked at understanding the baby’s code—what different cries indicated, and when she liked to sleep, and how she liked to be held. But all the while, she’s also working hard at learning your code, and some time between the first and second birthday, she’ll start beginning to tell you her interests and needs in your language. It is still speech therapy, but it begins to really work, and it is just fascinating.
I talked incessantly to Andrew from day one. I told him stories, sang him songs, asked him what he thought about the world news, asked him what I should cook for dinner, asked him what he thought about his diaper being changed. I waited for him to respond. Eventually he started listening, smiling, and making what the baby books called “loud, non-crying noises.” Then he started understanding and making meaningful gestures and one word responses. Then he started trying to direct things and gave multi-word responses.
By the time he was two he woke up in the morning with a clear plan of how the day should go, and communicated it to me in crisp, well thought out, articulate paragraphs. I had clearly succeeded only too well! But then we had a dialogue.
This is another of those areas where it is vital not to become anxious if your baby doesn’t learn to talk as fast as the baby next door, and equally vital not to become smug if your baby learns to talk faster. We almost all, eventually, learn to talk. One of my uncles reportedly didn’t learn to talk till he was nearly four, but then he never shut up. He just didn’t have much to say as a baby.
Andrew had only about 20 or 30 words that he clearly understood on his first birthday and he had only four or five possible words that he was trying to say on his first birthday, and we weren’t quite sure about those. When he was two years old he had about 2000 words and perfect diction. And I have known all sorts of successful young people whose pattern of learning to talk was different. (Andrew was unusually fast at two. Don’t expect 2000 words. He was slow at the physical stuff, but on the verbal skills he was way at the top end of the bell curve.)
It doesn’t matter when they learn, what matters is what you teach them about language. Kids acquire language for two reasons—to communicate better with the people that they love and also to do a better job of controlling the behavior of the adults in their world. In order to make the whole process worth while, the goal has to be worth achieving for the kid.
How many times have you seen a very small kid try to get the attention of an adult who is doing some reasonable adult thing (like talking to another adult)? The kid comes in with their carefully prepared thought and says, “Momma, Want Cookie.” The adult doesn’t even hear the child. The kid repeats it, increasingly annoyed, over and over again, and the adult continues to blow the child off. Finally the kid snaps and behaves badly, the adult snaps and snarls at the kid. The kid cries, and the adult gives the kid the cookie.
The lessons the kid learns, clearly as if they were spoken, are:
“Your conversation doesn’t matter to me, and
You aren’t really very important to me, but
If you behave badly enough I will placate you.”
Is this really what you want to teach your kid when they are one or two years old? If it is, go right ahead, but then don’t complain when they are still hitting and biting at age four or become dreadful whiners in junior high or when they don’t tell you a single thing they really are thinking about in high school.
I think this period where the kid learns to talk is absolutely critical. Maybe the most important period prior to adolescence (though I also adore the “terrible twos” where the kid takes her new found conversational skills and learns to direct people’s behavior).
In this period I think it is really important for the parents to think clearly about what their long term goals are for relating to the kid and encouraging the kid to relate to the world. You are establishing two-way communication for the first time. If you do it with respect for the child then you encourage the child to respect himself and to see communication as a fulfilling adventure.
Here are the goals:
1) The kid should understand that communication gives him power and that he will get what he wants much more perfectly and much more easily if he will tell you, specifically, what that is.
2) The kid should understand that communication gives him better connection, that you want to know his thoughts simply because you love him and are interested in knowing who he is and how he thinks.
3) It is helpful to put significant effort into helping the kid develop a large vocabulary early. This isn’t to “improve” the kid or make him special, but simply to introduce him as soon as possible into the joys of full communication.
How you teach this is fairly simple to explain and fairly difficult to execute because many of your instincts are against it & you have to watch yourself like a hawk.
Teaching vocabulary: Talk to the kid in the early stages about
everything, using the words you would normally use, though a bit simpler. Then, if he is paying attention but looking
confused, rephrase it in simpler words.
Or, if there is a group in the room, and you are discussing something
and the kid is listening, take the trouble to stop, turn around, and explain to
the kid in simple language. Even if the
kid does not understand, it gives him the key concept that you are including him in the conversation and that his comprehension
matters. Think of the kid as though
he were a recent very honored holy man from
When Andrew was a baby, my husband
used to listen to NPR on the radio in the mornings as he drove him to day
care. He would tell him about the news
articles when he thought that they might be of interest, even though, at one,
he assumed they were way over his head. One
day, when Andrew was nearly two, they were listening to an article about a
severe drought in
At about the same time, I was visiting my home town with my older sister. In the evening my friend Gwen came down to our house (visiting from a few blocks away). I turned to Andrew and explained to him that I had pointed out Gwen’s house to him earlier in the day. (My sister curled her lip and thought how silly I was to be explaining to Andrew as if he could comprehend.) Andrew nodded intelligently and said, “The Brown House.” He had noticed and remembered because we had spent a zillion times treating him with respect when he was not yet old enough to notice and remember.
This part of learning to talk is, like so much else in the parent-child relationship, about respect. If you include your child in the conversation, take the time to explain, take the time to put it in simple words, and talk talk talk talk to her, then she will learn English better, faster, and more thoroughly than if she is a small silent visitor in your living room.
Incidentally, if you were teaching language to a Tibetan guru, you would have language materials around the house. You would buy learning tapes and you would buy vocabulary books. So think about this aspect of development when coming up with your book acquisition policy in this period and also your strategy for TV. We bought inordinate numbers of little books with pictures of things on them and we spent time every day sitting with our son on our lap reading the little books and talking about the objects. After sixty hundred repetitions of, “Look, that’s the Brown Cow jumping over the Moon” the kid learns a color and a heavenly body and an animal—three new words in the comprehension vocabulary. We also watched TV and videos with our kid. I must have watched Dumbo 100 times. And I didn’t even LIKE Dumbo, but Andrew sure did. And the repetition helps with learning vocabulary just like it does with a language tape.
Language and Power. A kid’s conversation is no less (or more) important than a respected adult’s.
We established an in house rule, early on, that during the language transition stage, if Andrew spoke to us we would ALWAYS stop what we were doing and speak back even if we were busy. If Andrew came in to me and said “Andrew Want Cookie” he wouldn’t necessarily get the cookie, but he would immediately get a courteous response. It might be, “Andrew wait just a second, I have to finish saying this to Aunt Gwen.” But the speech of a small person who interrupts is just as important as the speech of an adult who comes in with an urgent need. I might not give the adults what they want, but I do, invariably, give them the courtesy of eye contact and a response—no adult ever has to repeat their request over and over, and no kid should have to either.
But we had another special house rule, which we only used during this period of rapid language acquisition (which was, in our case, till about 28 months.) This was that when Andrew made a request Using His Words rather than using tears, physicality, or other infantile codes, then we would try to gratify most requests, even if some of the requests were a little bit unreasonable. And we told him we were doing it. If he requested a toy sitting on a high shelf by waving his hands and screaming, we’d say, “USE YOUR WORDS! You have words to say that, use words.” But if he pulled himself together and remember to say “Andrew wants toy” instead of screaming, we would give him the toy, even if we might normally have said no.
We had a several breakthroughs where we developed this concept and communicated it to our kid—all by respecting his desire to communicate and taking action that he wanted when he communicated successfully. It came in stages.
One was very early on when he was sitting in his highchair and he wanted something and kept gesturing to another part of the kitchen saying “Want Dat.” We simply couldn’t figure out what “Dat” was and I kept suggesting things it might be and he was getting madder and madder at me for being so stupid. Fortunately, during this period, we had lots and lots of little books with pictures of objects on them. He grabbed one that was on his high chair, browsed through it, pointed to a picture of a CRAYON and said, “Want DAT!” I went over and got the crayons which were out of sight in a kitchen drawer, gave him the purple one and some paper. He learned the word crayon, and we spent some time pronouncing it. I learned that he now had long-term memory! He was capable of remembering where I had put the crayons, and of finding the crayon in his equivalent of a “phrase book.”
Another time, he was having a complete meltdown when I tried to sit next to him and I simply couldn’t figure out what his problem was. I turned to him and said, in a crabby tone, “use your WORDS!” I don’t know what you are mad about!”
Pulling the shreds of his personality back together he sobbed out, “Don’t Sit On Trucks.” I looked in the bedclothes and sure enough, there were two metal trucks I was in danger of sitting on. I apologized courteously, asked where it was OK to move them, moved them as directed, and sat down. All was well, and a new concept about the power of speech occurred.
A few weeks later, Andrew came out at six am on a Saturday morning. We were up (he was, as I have said, an early riser in those day) staggering around drinking our coffee. Andrew came bustling in and said in a directive tone, “CHEERIOS, BACKPACK, OUT, WALK!!!”
We looked at each other blankly for a minute, and then figured out that he was very simply proposing that we put some dried Cheerios in a baggie, get out the big backpack, put him in it, and all go for a nice walk in the neighborhood. This was a completely reasonable request, something we frequently did on a weekend, but not usually at dawn. If we had said, “sure we’ll do that in an hour or two” all he would have remembered is that we had frustrated what was actually an excellent proposal. So what we did is to do exactly, precisely, what he suggested, immediately. Peter went for the backpack; I went for the Cheerios; and we were out walking in approximately 3 minutes, unwashed, unshaven, and wearing our sweatpants. But Andrew got, vividly, the idea that language is powerful for getting his needs met, and his language development proceeded very rapidly from that moment. He really got it that if he would say it to us in as complete English as he could manage—we would try our very best to gratify his reasonable needs.
By the time he was nearly two, he had the language concept down and was beginning to make jokes. Once, he was in his high chair and kept dropping his fork on the floor to hear the noise (and possibly to irritate me). I picked it up a couple of times and then took his lunch away and explained that I was tired of picking up his fork and if he couldn’t stop throwing his fork he couldn’t eat lunch. He said earnestly, “No throw fork. No throw fork.” I brought the lunch back, put it on the high chair, and said, “OK, you can have it back, but it’s going to go away if you throw the fork again.” As I turned away I heard him say, quietly to himself. “No throw fork…throw SPOON!” I turned around and he was laughing at me.
Then I knew that the language lesson had been learned—and that he also had inherited my family’s depraved Irish wit. He has found both skills about equally useful.
Communication and Connection. Unfortunately, you will discover as the child acquires language, that not all of what they say is fascinating. The fact of the matter is that quite a lot of it is down right tedious. They want to tell you the plot of, say, Dumbo, undeterred by the fact that you have watched it 100 times with them. They want to tell you what their poop looks like during the endless toilet training period. “Look, mom, it’s like a castle!” They do, in fact, tend to want a candy bar every time they go to the store or a cookie every time you get on the phone. It takes PATIENCE to treat the little darlings with respect during this period. (See the next chapter on the “Terrible Twos” for the discussion of toilet training, tantrums, etc.)
Treating them with respect, remember, does not mean giving them everything they want. It means always giving them attention and eye contact when they speak. It is OK to say, “I can’t listen to you right now you need to hold it for THREE minutes. I will pay attention to you in three minutes.” (But then it really has to be three minutes, not twenty. Egg timers are good for this, or look at your watch.)
It is also definitely good to not meet unreasonable requests. But look at them, talk to them, explain why, and be prepared for them to object. I never curl my lip at a parent who is patiently dealing with a squalling child who has been denied a candy bar in the grocery store. But the parents who simply ignore their kid while the child stands there saying “mommy, mommy, mommy” (trying to get some sort of reaction or even sign of life out of this being who is the center of their world) drive me completely bonkers.
The key to building vocabulary (and competence, communication and authenticity) is that you need to spend quite a bit of time, every day, listening to the kid talk about what they think is interesting and asking open ended questions on the subjects that they care about, or just commenting on the subjects they care about and letting them go on.
“Gee, Dumbo’s mother feels pretty sad, doesn’t she.” or “Do you think the Quiet Old Lady Whispering Hush is the Grandma? or do you think it’s the Mommy?” Or let the kid bring up a topic. It doesn’t matter what you talk about. The point is that if the kid gets, very early, the idea that you are always the person who will stop what they are doing and listen, patiently, for as long as it takes, when the kid has something to say, then that habit gets ingrained.
What that means is that in 16 years when what they have to say is that their friend Billy has a drug habit, you are the mom who will know and can help get Billy into rehab & get your kid away from Billy. Trust me. My kid is 19. The talking and listening at age one has paid off big time.
You get to talk too. Just don’t expect them to listen very long at a stretch. Talk about how you feel about families. Talk about how you feel about being the mom. Tell the kid that you love her. Tell her that you are glad you are his mom. Later on you have to be careful to remember that your job, as the mom, is to raise a kid who is going to grow up and leave you and go to college and be an independent adult and forget your birthday. But that’s later. When they are one and two, all you have to do is love them and tell them so. Tell them frequently, enthusiastically. It is REALLY important that Dads do all this too, not just moms. Dads, if you will tell your kid, at least once a week, that you love him a whole lot and give him a big hug, all through the first and second year, your kid will be a whole lot happier and more stable kid.
Don’t forget that the kid is a Very Important Tibetan Lama with Imperfect English and should be honored not abused. Don’t say anything about him in public that is unkind. The kid is not deaf. Every bad thing you say about him, however humorously, lowers his self esteem. In the kids’ hearing, say nice things about him to others, and recognize and include them in the conversation whenever they are present. If you have negative things that need to be said about them (and you will—they are deeply irritating sometimes at this age) say it to one another after they have gone to sleep and when you are out of earshot.
Don’t bother to correct the kid’s grammar or syntax in this first six months of talking (and in fact, don’t worry a great deal about it at any age). Just talk to the kid. She’ll pick up the correct grammar if you use it consistently yourself. Lots of oddities in kid’s language are perfectly normal. He’ll say: “Want dat” before he says “Andrew Want’s Milk.” Eventually he may switch to “me want milk.” And it will be quite a while before he says, “Mom, may I have some milk please.” (In fact, by the time he gets there, he may be old enough to go get his own milk.”
Don’t worry about “teaching” the kid—just talk to him and focus on how well you can understand what his needs and interests are. They have interesting minds, and can begin to tell you about their thoughts. One time, when Andrew was about 20 months, I looked at him as he stood in the front yard stretching up as high as he possibly could. Finally he looked sadly over at me and said, “Andrew can’t touch sky.” But he could certainly try.
And it was a truly wonderful moment the first time that he could tell me, when he was felling ill, what hurt. It is so much easier to care for a sick child who can tell you that he’s hot, or that his stomach hurts, or that his ear is sore.
Do try to understand when they are using words differently than yours. Some of their words can just be adopted—for years we called a towel worn over the head of a baby while drying them a “skink.” I don’t know why. We still called Polish Sausage “alphonse” because Andrew liked the food but didn’t like its name. I have one friend who says “otay” instead of OK, because his kid does. And another father of four children provoked hilarity on his information systems consulting job because he absently asked for the “snippy poos” instead of the “scissors.” The one that confused me most for quite some time when he started calling “tasty” foods that he disliked. Eventually I realized that I had referred to some dish as “tasty” and he had hated it—and concluded that “tasty” was a word I used when I was feeding him something loathsome. I dropped the word from my vocabulary for about ten years.
There are great moments when you begin to have actual conversations. I kept a diary during this period, and here is one of the first conversations we had when he was close to two. He was drinking his bottle and decided that he didn’t like his milk and that it didn’t taste good:
A: No more milk. Milk OLD. Don't like it.
Me: That's the only milk we have in the house. There isn't any other milk.
A: Went. Got Groceries. Up Stairs. Got MILK. Mamma, Daddy, Andrew all together!
(What he meant was that he saw, with his own eyes, that we got two bottles of milk at Trader Joes so there was so some other milk in the house.)
Me: I know we got milk yesterday. But this is that same milk that we got. We just put it in a bottle so that Andrew could have it first thing this morning. This is the same milk. There is no other kind of milk in the house.
A: (Deep thought & long pause). Milk. (sticks his hand out for the bottle & drinks it.)
In general, I started by teaching the simplest word I could for any concept, since the goal is communication, not 800s on the SAT. I did make one early exception, however. I taught him the concept of “optional” and “mandatory” (and the two words) very early, & used them over and over in examples. This came handy during the terrible twos, because things that were “mandatory” were simply going to happen, whether he fussed or not.
I also taught him the word “vehicle” because small boys have or are given a superfluity of small wheeled objects, and we could just call them all vehicles instead of distinguishing between the many different kinds.
Of course, talking is by no means the only thing going on during this period. Sometime before she is two, your child will walk, may begin to run, sing, throw balls, dance, and be generally adorable. All of these things require lots of encouragement and participation from you. Run. Hop. Dance. Crawl under tables. Jump in piles of leaves. Play in the wading pool. Make snow angels. One year old babies, particularly towards the end of that year, have got a whole lot of power and control. And with your help, they can begin to talk about it!