If I’d known that my thirteen-month-old son would wake me up at 7:00 in the morning by crawling on my head and then looking at me expectantly while putting his two dimpled fists together in the sign for “more,” I would have thought twice about teaching him – a normal, hearing baby – sign language.
All I’d heard were the wonderful things signing could do for us: we could communicate as early as seven months. He’d reap the benefits of learning a second language, like having a higher IQ and larger vocabulary. There would be fewer temper tantrums. We’d bond. And most importantly for me, it would, I hoped, stop the agitated groaning, grunting and reaching that had become the soundtrack to my life.
I fell for it hard. From the time he was born, I looked forward to the day when my little guy would start talking to me with his hands. He’d let me know what he needed and I would avoid the “do-you-want-this-or-this-or-this” game altogether. And then he’d scrub the floor and do the dishes.
When he was five months old, I started with the most urgent signs: more, eat, diaper and milk. I dutifully signed them to him at the appropriate times and studied him for hints of understanding. All I got were blank stares. Sometimes he looked away.
Months passed and I grew anxious as I talked to friends whose babies had started signing after only weeks of teaching. I was exasperated when my son lost interest in the Baby Signing Time DVDs my friends raved about. My heart sank when I heard stories of babies picking up new signs in an instant.
But I couldn’t stop. By his first birthday, my son wasn’t signing, but he also hadn’t yet spoken a word. I dreaded another year of his groaning. Something had to be done to stop the noise, I thought, and the only something I knew of was sign language. Yet each time I signed, I was reminded of his lack of interest and plagued with thoughts that maybe my child didn’t want to talk to me at all.
Then, after eight months of teaching, he finally did it. He waved “bye-bye” to a stranger in the park. From that moment, the signing seemed virtually unstoppable. He signed bye-bye every chance he got. Bye-bye bed. Bye-bye food. Bye-bye pajamas. Bye-bye train. Within days his signing vocabulary took off. Milk. Eat. More. Dog. Bird. I was elated and encouraged him at every turn.
“Do you want something to eat? Something to eat? Eat! Yes! Good sign!” I would say. “Good sign!” became a refrain at our house. “Yes, I see you want more, but there is no more. No more. Good sign, though, good sign.”
“Dog? I don’t see a dog. Good sign, though, good sign.”
The “good sign”-ing reached ridiculous levels. Both my husband and I worried that without our enthusiasm for every attempted communication, no matter how out of place it may have been, our boy would have second thoughts about trying to talk to us. We felt signing was a thin rope that connected us to our reticent son, a rope he could easily pull away if we didn’t constantly hold up our end.
We “good sign”-ed until we didn’t mean it any more, until what I really wanted to say was, “More? More what? More diaper changes? More naps? You don’t even know what that word means!” Instead, I’d hand him a stray object. “You want more? Here’s more. More socks. Good sign. Good sign for more.” Fear of planting seeds of distrust in our relationship made us loose with praise.
And so, after the initial elation of success wore off, buyer’s remorse settled in. I doubted his sincerity with every gesture. I wondered if I had been starving him, so frequent were his requests for food and more of it. I thought back on the good old days before he realized I took orders, back when he was grateful that I remembered to feed him at all.
But I had not forgotten the groaning, grunting, reaching machine that had so recently been replaced by this quieter, if more demanding model. I continued to compliment his every sign with the hope that the added confidence would keep communication strong.
Slowly, gradually, the confidence came. The boy can now reliably produce appropriate signs without prompting and he continues to use them even after requests are denied. Yes, we are subject to a round of “dog” signing each time our neighbor’s dog barks, but instead of being scared into showering him with praise at a well-executed sign, we acknowledge that, yes, we heard the dog too. Good listening.
Wasn’t signing a way of intervening early so he could communicate? However, my son is now seventeen months old. He doesn’t speak at all. No “Mama.” No “Dada.” Not even “No.” It didn’t occur to me to that he should be speaking until his pediatrician mentioned the words “early intervention” and “speech therapy” at his well-baby checkup. Funny. I thought I’d already done that. Wasn’t signing a way of intervening early so he could communicate?
The doctor wasn’t convinced that my son’s signs constituted meaningful communication. “If he doesn’t start speaking soon,” the doctor said, “he’ll get frustrated. That’s when the terrible twos kick in. Best to get a speech therapist to help him out before the tantrums start.”
Part of me wonders, did I do this to my son? Did my encouragement and enthusiasm for signing keep him from learning to talk? And although signing has defused many tantrums already, I’d love to hear him say “Mama” and mean it. So I’ve taken on the responsibility of reversing the damage myself.
“Can you make the ‘Mmm’ sound? Like Ma-ma-ma-ma-mama.”
Dutifully, he’ll point to his forehead – his interpretation of the sign for “Mom.”
Sigh. Good sign, Son, good sign.