I am submitting this post to be part of PhD in Parenting’s Carnival of Toddlers.
On the morning of AM’s second birthday, he woke up next to me and asked to nurse. Taxman, Miss M, and I sang “Happy Birthday” and gave him a wrapped gift. “Book,” he said, as he tore off the paper.
“What do you think it’s about?” I asked him.
He inspected the cover slowly. “Dog!” he said excitedly.
“That’s right, a doggie,” I told him.
Except that’s not exactly how it happened. He had a speech delay and, at age two, he could not pronounce any consonants. But we had conversations—he even made funny comments—because he used sign language. Asking to nurse and talking about books and dogs was all in sign language.
We had started signing with Miss M, because we thought it was cool. She accumulated a vocabulary of over 150 words before her speech caught up with her hands. Fears that it would delay her spoken vocabulary were completely and utterly unfounded. But for a full year, from about 10 months to 22 months, it was an amazing window into her universe.
(We used the Signing Time series of videos. I used to think that using real ASL was important, but in retrospect it’s such as short time of their lives that “baby signs” or something invented serves just as well. On the other hand, ASL will save any embarrassment–made up signs have been known to indicate something vulgar or unintended.)
I loved signing with my kids because I felt like I was doing something totally right.
When I had so many other first-time-parenting doubts, signing was the knot at the end of my rope. I knew exactly what my child wanted! Even if I couldn’t, or didn’t, give it to her, I didn’t have to guess as much. I could offer her choices, as limited as they were: eat an apple or banana; take a bath now or read a book now; put on shoes first or coat first. What toddler doesn’t want a modicum of control over her life? What person doesn’t?
Of course there was a lot of disagreement. She was a toddler. But it’s easier to play the game when you know the rules, so to speak.
Besides giving her choices and giving voice to her opinions, signing offered us the chance to talk about what she wanted to talk about, what made her excited and what she saw. Flowers and birds at the botanical gardens; monkeys at the zoo. The moon in the sky—during the day!
AM took longer to sign back to us. For a while he did a lot of pointing with his index finger—I called it The Index Finger of Doom, because woe unto you if you guessed incorrectly about where it was aimed. Thankfully he picked up signing too. It was our lifeline. It may have contributed to his disqualification from Early Intervention, but I wasn’t sorry we had a way to talk to each other. (We found our own way to speech therapy. He had his opinions about that too.)
Over 200 signs later, he began to really use words. Now we have conversations about the difference between nocturnal and crepuscular* animals, and I kind of miss him looking out the window of our building lobby and telling me if he was seeing buses or cars.
I wish there were a magic bullet to help me overcome my children’s slights toward each other, their hot tempers and eye-rollingly self-aggrandizing statements. But I’ll keep them as they are. Having a toddler was hard! I just miss that parenting confidence that came with nursing and signing, when, at the end of the day, I was so sure that I was doing something right. Though it was unconventional among my neighborhood peers–more common, I discovered, among Ask Moxie moms–signing was something kick-ass, really good for my kids, and a true help.
*Ha! Not my fault! E.B. White, The Trumpet of the Swan