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Waiting for a sign?

February 5, 2009

Jack is 10 months old today.  To mark the occasion, he mastered a new form of throat-clearing that puts his old fake cough to shame, makes me laugh, and makes his dad rush in all ready to perform the Heimlich.

Today we are also observing my distinction as the only parent around, at least in this time zone, who is not trying to chat with my baby via sign language. (And I might be even more alone than that — a quick Google search for I don’t use baby signs yielded an entire page of results along the lines of “Use baby signs…” or “Teach your baby to sign.” Even an exact-phrase search led only to two results that started with “I don’t use baby signs” and ended with “But I do use regular ASL.”)

One of our good friends, whose son is a baby-signing pro, asked me a few months ago whether I was getting ready to teach Jack some baby signs. Mostly joking, I told him I was pretty sure that my son’s ability to ask me for things would come soon enough on its own. Mostly joking, he’s made fun of me ever since for not wanting to communicate with my baby.

The thing is, Jack already uses gestures and sounds to let me know when he wants more of something. He’s skilled at reaching, pulling, grabbing and whining, and he has perfected an acute look of desperation to employ in concert with any or all of the above. And in waving hello and good-bye to him, and motioning for him to crawl to me, I like to think that I’m practicing the most traditional baby signs. But as apparently lots of babies out there know the signs for, say, “the ceiling fan” or “scrambled eggs” or “I want to go to sleep,” I guess I’m not really even in the ball park.

I’m afraid many will be appalled or bewildered to know that I’m actually relishing this time with my mother’s intuition. I like the guesswork, trying to stay attuned and attentive and doing my best to perceive what to do with or for him. Sometimes my best isn’t quite right, and we’re both frustrated. But so far it’s always been good enough. And when it isn’t, let’s face it: Signs could only get him so far, because he’s stuck with me, along with whatever food, clothing or car ride I’m subjecting him to. As he gets older, even if it won’t exactly get easier for him to have his way, it will definitely be harder for me to get my way. Should I not relish this opportunity?

I’m reminded of an incredibly cute, sweet, smart little boy I used to spend a lot of time when I worked as a nanny through college. I saw Julian grow from baby to toddler, and what I remember most of that dramatic transformation is his development of language. Because I wasn’t his mother but a familiar big friend, I couldn’t intuit his wants and needs the way she could. But Jules was a pretty easy-going guy, and he generally forgave the fact that some of our  communication was lost in translation. After all, I was mostly around to supervise the fun.

Then he started talking.

This was exciting and fabulous in so many ways. But it also changed our dynamic. For example, I was in the habit of playing cheerful tunes on his dad’s guitar. Suddenly, one (post-verbal) day, he piped up: “Sing Hebrew.” For lack of ability, I did not. So he asked again (and when I say “asked,” obviously I mean he demanded.) I did what I could with what I had in the old Hebrew toolbox, stocked with a vaguely Jewish aunt and lines from Keeping the Faith: “Shalom haverim! Shalom to our friends! Chanukkah…Dreidel. Oh, Yamaka! … Oy vey.” It was the dawning of a new age – new joys, new funny stories, and a newfound appreciation for the pre-language stage.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not knocking the baby sign language movement. I’m always amazed to see a little one signing please, thank you or “more.” Were we not precluded by distance and isolation from getting into playgroups, I’m sure that jealousy, competition or social pressure would have me signing up for the next available class. But so far, I’m content to continue on my current, maybe misguided, path of inference and trial-and-error.

Although I have to admit, the idea of Jack signing “I want to go to sleep,” however improbable, is looking pretty good right now…

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Elizabeth permalink
    February 5, 2009 11:32 pm

    I am totally with you on the no-signing thing. I’ve just read enough stuff that indicates that it could delay talking that we’re not going to do it. I kind of thought I would be the only one in the world not doing it! Glad I’m not…

  2. February 6, 2009 8:46 pm

    It is funny, the founders of Baby Signs, Inc. actually started the research because their children were communicating with gestures just like your little guy. That is where the research started. They just decided that it the children could communicate already, why not give them more “Signs” to use. However, they agree it should be fun and if it is not your thing and it would cause you stress or in any way be a negative for your family then don’t do it. As for Elizabeth’s comment… the scientific reaserch shows only positive effects. There is no actual research only “opinons” which show concerns with delaying speech. Don’t let that be a reason to not do it. I work with Dr. Acredolo and Dr. Goodwyn and they are all about the social-emotional benefits, again do it if is right for you and your child. From what you are saying your son is already using “baby signs,” the ones he has choosen to use and probably a few gestures that he picked up from you naturally! If this works for you then that is O-kay! I wish you the best, however you choose to communicate.

  3. February 6, 2009 9:06 pm

    We did a few signs with Hayden; however, he never got that into it and was not a signing pro. He learned ‘more’ and ‘all done’… that’s it… we also attempted teaching him mommy, daddy, please, and thank you.

    Don’t worry about doing the baby sign thing or not… I mean, Jack won’t suffer from not signing ‘more’ or ‘ceiling fan’… I think he is going to be just fine. Happy 10 months Jack!

    P.S. See ya tomorrow!

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