Lost in translation

I read this blog post on language acquisition in children with a mixture of fascination and misgivings. (Did I make the topic sound scary? Sorry about that. The post title is “My Baby Learns Language Better Than I Do,” if that helps.) Fascination because this sort of stuff has always been deeply interesting to me — how we start out as helpless little creatures who do little more than cry and then, in the space of a year, transform into walking, talking little people. Misgivings because, as I’ve learned, it ain’t always that easy.

My son is 2. Nearly 28 months, if you’re that granular. (I’m not. I had to count that out on my fingers.) He understands almost everything I say; he simply chooses not to acknowledge some of it. (Said just now: “Don’t throw that chalk under the dryer. I am not moving appliances to get them back — if you throw it under there, it’s gone forever.” He’s still throwing the pieces of chalk…but not quite as hard as he was a minute ago. He’s no dummy.) He’s beginning to speak in sophisticated sentences, using words I had no idea he knew. He likes to crack jokes, too — always has, but now they, too, are becoming more sophisticated.

Currently he uses a mix of words and signs to communicate his thoughts. He knows that if he wants a piece of candy, he has to point, say “Canny?” and then say “Please?” — accompanied by clasped hands (because that’s how I taught both of my kids to say please, because it’s freaking adorable). He knows that his odds of getting said piece of candy increase if he a) eats all his veggies and b) doesn’t throw his unwanted food on the floor. He also knows that his odds of getting a second piece of candy go up if he tacks “Please?” onto “More?” (also said and signed — “Please?” and “More?” were among his first signs, and get much use, especially when candy is involved). And if that doesn’t work, he knows that adding “I you” never fails. (He always skips the “love” in “I love you.” I assume it’s because “love” is hard to say.)

He and I work on letters and numbers and sounds, with varying degrees of success depending upon the day and his mood. But I’ve caught him singing the alphabet (well, hooting the tune — he doesn’t know all the letters yet, obviously), and he can count to 4 when he chooses, so something’s getting through. It’ll come in time. In the meantime, he can let me know when he is hungry, thirsty, and needs to use the potty — that’s all we need right now.

But it’s not, of course. He is a growing boy, and has far greater needs than mere sustenance and elimination. So when his communication attempts fail, we have stage two: The meltdown. “Temper tantrum” is too mild a term for these fits. The other day, he screamed at the top of his lungs, while flailing about and sobbing hot tears of rage, for 45 minutes. Forty. Five. Minutes. Without pause. Why? Because I wanted to change his diaper and get him dressed. Actually, because I wanted to get him ready to visit a local museum. When he was already tired. He missed the part about how we were going to go have fun and instead fixated on the fact that we were getting in the car. (He hates the car.) And, because he was tired, he turned it into A THING. He couldn’t express to me that he didn’t want to get into the car, so he just threw a kicking, screaming fit. Because that message is unmistakable: HELL NO, MOMMY.

Eventually he calmed down, and we went, and he had a great time. But my bruises remain.

My daughter will be 6 in August. As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, she has childhood apraxia of speech. She may also be dyslexic; it’s too soon to tell yet. What I know is this: She hyperventilates when presented with the alphabet. She knows almost all of her letters — and I’ve learned that we’re not talking 26 letters, but 52; upper and lowercase versions of the same letter are still distinct letter forms to decipher. I don’t remember having a problem with this as a child, but she is. She is not confused by b and d, as I’ve been warned that she could be. But I and i and T and t and p/q/a, in certain fonts, give her trouble. She can sight read more words than I would have guessed — and really, if you can play the song, who cares if you can name each note? — but if you quiz her on those words, she freezes. She starts strong, then devolves into nervous, breathy laughter, whining, fidgeting, and eventually anger. Which gets frustrating for me, because I’m trying to help her and she’s lashing out at me.

We’ve practiced deep breathing. I’ve tried making learning a game. I’ve tried reassuring her that I’m not going to make her walk the plank if she guesses and she’s wrong. I’ve told stories about instances in which I have had trouble learning. (I have the same thing with numbers that she does with letters, for instance.) But the problem appears to be the fact that I am Mom. She doesn’t want to let me down, but also feels secure enough in my love to push back…and here we are.

The iceberg image from that blog article I linked above is a perfect visual aid for my daughter. The words she knows, is comfortable saying, and can say understandably would fill a small cup. The words she knows yet cannot say intelligibly would fill a swimming pool. The words she knows but cannot identify on the page, even when prompted to sound them out (because she knows all of her letter sounds, though sometimes she struggles to recognize the written letter form) would fill the Pacific. And she can’t swim.

It’s frustrating for her, because her thought process is very sophisticated for 5; I know I wasn’t thinking on the level she thinks at that age. And she has a big vocabulary to go with her big brain. She just has a couple of wires crossed, which make it hard for her to express what she’s thinking in written or verbal form. But she conflates that into meaning she’s dumb, because she can’t make herself understood. I’m sure it doesn’t help to see her brother making such rapid progress. Just like it didn’t help that she missed half the school year last year — her classmates probably appeared to make similarly large leaps in comprehension.

She doesn’t kick me, but she does throw fits comparable to her brother’s rage tsunamis when she encounters those crossed wires. My challenge, therefore, is to try to figure out how to shut down the fits and channel that energy productively. Teach them that they are safe with me, and that I will help them try to express themselves if they’ll let me. Work with them so that when they get into school, they can confidently identify their letters (and numbers!). And ultimately setting my ego aside and focusing on what they need, even if that means that they learns best from someone who is not me.

I do better at this some days than others.

Shin guards would probably help.



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