Archive for the ‘Sign Language’ Category

Required reading.

I remember when Miles found his hands.  He was just a wiggly little grub, fleshy and bald, grunting and trying in vain to roll himself over.  He’s still exploring his body and what it can do, of course, but lately his awareness has expanded beyond himself.  About a week ago, he discovered the existence of tails.  Before that, he met and befriended his shadow, waving shyly at it whenever the two meet.  And lately, he can’t stop thinking and talking about nighttime — specifically about the moon and stars.     


I blame Signing Time Volume 3 for this; it taught him the signs for night, day, sun, moon and stars, among others.  (Cookie?  Really?  Thanks a lot, Rachel Coleman.  Did we really need to teach him how to demand a cookie?)  Now Miles sits alone in his room, hunting through EVERY one of his books to find moons and stars.  “Mama?  Mama?  MAMA!” he hollers.  I run back to the bedroom, hands drippy with dish suds, convinced that he’s tangled in the curtains or trapped under a bookshelf  — but no.  He holds up a picture of a beach ball with a star on it.  “Star?” 

He spots stars when we’re out running errands, glimpsing the five-pointed beauties on flags, construction vans, the handles of snack cups, handbags, posters, strollers, t-shirts, canned foods, and even tattooed on the toe of a nurse who was checking him for Coxsackie virus (which he had — ugh). And where there’s stars, he’s downright indignant not to encounter their usual celestial chaperone, the moon. 

“Moon?” he asks me beseechingly, holding his hands up in the “where” sign. 

"Ten Black Dots" by Donald Crews.

“No, there’s no moon there, but aren’t those stars on that beer truck lovely?” 

“Moon?  Moon? Moon?”   

At first I was tempted to see profundity in this interest of his.  I heard the booming voice of a National Geographic film narrator in my head, intoning, “From our earliest days, mankind has been entranced by the heavens.” Indeed.  Why is Miles so captivated by the moon and stars of all things?  What does he think they are?  I imagine Miles pondering the origins of life, yearning wordlessly to understand his place in the cosmos.  Who am I?, he might be wondering.  Why am I here?  Then I remember how much he loves garbage trucks and construction equipment.  Hmmmph.  Do garbage trucks and bulldozers evoke the mystery of creation, destruction and decay?  The building up and tearing down of our flimsy plans? The impermanence of human experience? The futility of desire?  Or does he just like loud noises and moving parts? 

Every night, the same two books.

Well, I was enthralled with this moon/stars thing.  But what once was cute, I have begun to loathe.  Must we read “Goodnight Moon” every night now?  We must.  Must Mommy draw moons with the sidewalk chalk every time?  She must.  Miles asks me to draw a star on the sidewalk for the 917th time and before I can finish it, he  shrieks, “Moon?  Moon? Moon!?!” because stars need the moon.  Right now!

In those moments, I wish this whole moon thing could be over FOREVER and I wonder why I ever thought he was poetic or even charming — in fact, maybe he has some mental defect! a moon fixation! —  and he’s pointing at my desperate, smearing moon-deficient sidewalk-chalk galaxy and walking backwards away from me, chanting  and signing “moon, moon, moon” as I clasp my hands over my ears to drown out that hateful word. 

Just when I’m ready to sell him to a roving band of gypsy astronomers, he falls silent.  He stares rapturously at the flowers in the window box.

He approaches the flowers.  Signs flower.  Squats, bends, sniffs.  “Mmmmm.”  Smiles.

Could he be any cuter??  Jeez.  I relax.  For now.

Smelling the flowers. Literally.


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Miles recently discovered tails.  Specifically, that they exist and that they grace the posteriors of some (but not all!) animals.  We were playing in his room, hugging his stuffed animals, when he noticed.  He hugs his animals in a very specific way, crushing the poor creatures to his neck while twisting his torso in a rocking motion and patting with one hand.  Not coincidentally, this is how I hug him when he is hurt or upset.  Then, when plopping a just-hugged dog to the floor, he made his discovery.


“What is this strange, delightful appendage?” he asked me, in his own language of gestures, syllables and eyebrow lifting.

“That’s a tail, Miles.  See, the giraffe has a tail too.”

His astonishment quickly turned to engrossed wonder.  With joyful purpose, he examined each and every animal in the bin, sorting them by tails and not tails.  Dog?  Tail.  Pooh bear? Tail.  Otto the Love Monster?  Not tail.  Chamelon?  Big tail.

Why tails?  Why now?  It baffles me, and I love it.  Sort of.  Over the next day, he started saying  “tail” and invented his own hand sign for tail: pointing at his own bottom.  (Other Miles-invented signs: holding his palms up questioningly for “where?”, holding his hand to his ear for “phone,” and patting his head for “hat.”)  Within two days, the tail thing was getting out of control.  A little scientist, he insisted on personally investigating the tail phenomenon.  He had checked the animals on his wooden farm puzzle for tails and repeatedly confirmed the existence and location of Luna’s tail (a procedure she does not appreciate).  On the changing table, when Robin was putting him in a new diaper, they discussed the tail of a teddy bear he was holding.  Curious, he reached down to his bare bottom and checked himself for a tail.  Robin had to assure him several times that he did not have one.  He seemed disappointed.

Just the other day, Miles was in the bathtub and I crawled away from him to grab the baby shampoo. He patted my bottom inquisitively, not for the first time that day.  “Tail?”

“Miles, Mommy does not have a tail!”  I said.  “I promise!” 

My little scientist smiled.  I knew he would not take my word for it.

Baby doll: not tail.

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Robin and I are full-fledged members of the Mean Mothers Club.  We got our Mean Mother identification cards in the mail the other day, complete with scowling photos in which our lips are permanently pursed in the “No” position.  How did we finally get to join such a prestigious group, populated by notable Mean Mothers throughout history?  What new cruelty have we devised that wins us this mark of distinction?

We harshly refuse to let Miles brush his teeth 27 times a day.

I’m going to let you in on an awkward little secret.  Something is wrong with that kid: he likes to brush his teeth.  He’s


 actually obsessed with it!  What kind of kid loves tooth brushing?  Eekgads.  He certainly doesn’t get it from this mother.  I used to elaborately fake having brushed my teeth — wetting the toothbrush, smearing some toothpaste in the sink, and tiptoing out with a self-satisfied smirk.  (Yes, my dentist profited from this subterfuge.  I had many, many cavities.)

About 27 times a day, Miles halts his current activity, acquires a look of concentration, holds his index finger to his mouth in a brushing motion and asks, urgently, “Teeth?” 

At first we tried to play stupid, but his pronunciation is clear and his invented sign language leaves no room for doubt.  Plus, he’ll grab us by the pantleg and drag us to the bathroom to get his point across.  This desperate plea for tooth brushing has finally driven us to close the bathroom door.  Not his passion for the plunger, his new ability to clamber atop the toilet lid, or his antics with the Charmin — just his incessant demands for “teeth.” 

As I quiz my friends, I find that this is… could it be?  Fairly normal?  What’s the matter with kids these days, I ask you?  Can anyone make any sense of it?

Robin and I have taken to referring to tooth brushing as “that thing.”  As in, “Robin, make sure I get a chance to do that thing without him seeing before you leave for work.”  Or, “Honey, I just did that thing.  Do you need to do it?”  Yes, I know very well that certain pop songs refer to sex as “that thing” and that my life in comparison to a pop song is now really, unbelievably unglamorous.  

So about 27 times a day, I hear my mean, unglamorous self saying, “Yes, Miles, that’s where the toothbrush is, but we don’t do that right now.  We do that after our bath.”    His lip trembles and his whole body sags with the weight of his disappointment.  Then he perks up and looks at me hopefully again.  Perhaps I have not understood how much he wants it?  “Teeth?!” he asks.  And, flashing my best Mean Mother scowl, I say, “No, Miles.  Later.”

As I put him into the bath, he checks with me over and over to make sure tooth brushing is still on the agenda.  “Teeth?  Teeth?”  I reassure him and hand him his toy fish.  He plays with his once- beloved bath toys, but it’s almost as if he can’t relax until that brush is in his hands.  Finally, bath over, that magical time arrives.  The whole time we’re drying him off, he’s asking.

Don't forget, Momma!

Robin or I brush his teeth first, then hand him the brush to give it a go.  Grinning into the bristles, he chuckles a little.  And stops in the middle to look at us and be sure we know.  He pulls the toothbrush out, signs and mumbles it one last time — “Teeth!” — and continues brushing. 

At last!


He likes this? I really don't get it.



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Read my lips.

I decided to catalog almost all of the words Miles says.  I say almost because he’s constantly adding new words.  Plus, he will sometimes blurt out a word, like “bike,” and then not say it again, ever.  And I’m sure I’ve forgotten about most of those words.  But this list will capture my best estimate of the words that our son, Miles R. O. Davidson, is saying at 16 months.

At first I was tempted to get all teacher-y and make a big chart with different columns to show how clearly or consistently he uses each word.  It would have smart-sounding columns, like Attempting, Approximating and Mastering, and I would develop a rubric that would determine the placement of each word within the column.

You think I’m joking, I can tell.  You think I can’t possibly be that insane.

But not only was I thinking of doing this, I was thinking of doing it with a big chart paper on the wall of our apartment.  And writing the words on index cards so they could be moved over from column to column as he improved his pronunciation.  And maybe even printing or drawing images to go with each word so Miles could see and understand the chart, too.  Then I thought, maybe a white board would be simpler.  But where would I hang it? 

Luckily, I don’t have time in my day to pursue such wild shower thoughts.  (We all have wildly ambitious thoughts in the shower, right?  Like “Maybe I’ll study Russian and read Tolstoy again!  And start volunteering to mentor teen girls!  Or at the very least make a chocolate souffle with organic eggs!”  But I digress.)

Here are the words, for your enjoyment.  (And keep in mind that many of these words would be in the Attempting category, meaning he makes some odd gargling sound that only we can identify as that word.) Interestingly, most of the words start with letters from the beginning of the alphabet.  It makes me wonder a little bit about how the alphabet is sequenced, like is it correlated with the ease with which human babies can form the sounds?  Or is Miles just a lover of the letter B? 


apple, ball (favorite word), banana (one syllable, of course — “bah!”), bath, bear, belly, bird, blocks, book, bottle (while signing water, to ask for a water bottle), bowl, breast (what were we thinking?), bus, car, cat (official first word, frequently said with glee while chasing Luna and jabbing his finger into his cheek to sign the word), cheese


dance (Aretha Franklin is a favorite), dog (obsessed!), duck (his sleeping companion), fish


go (when he is sitting in his wagon and wants you to push, silly!), hat (he likes trying them on, especially the new fedora), hot (radiators! ouch!), hi


none yet!


ma (either of us), milk, momma (usually Robin), mom (usually me), no (while shaking head earnestly), Nana (once), Pooh (as in Winnie the)


shoes, spoon (adult utensils, puh-lease!), star


teeth (when asking to brush them), that, truck (an old fave that’s making a comeback), water


xylophone (just kidding!)

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“Baby sign language? My brother ruined his kids by teaching them sign language.  All because he wanted them to excel.  Tsssk, tsssk.”

“My sister’s kids refused to talk because they could sign.”

“Better be careful.  You’re going to delay his speech.”

That’s what they said.  And they were wrong.  So there!

Okay, let me back up.  Way back when Miles was an itty bitty infant, I began to wonder, should we teach him sign language?  Proponents say it is good for their brains and improves their vocabulary.  They even claim that it virtually eliminates the terrible twos!  Crazy, I know, but people argue that toddler who can communicate are more likely to get what they want (within reason) and less likely to flip a lid because you handed them crackers when what they really wanted was juice.

All that sounded very appealing.  But was it all a gimmick?  Some stupid yuppie scam?  I didn’t want to be some high-pressure, overachievement freak, either. I didn’t want to be one of those parents. On one hand, I had friends who were signing with their kids and said it was great.  On the other hand, people shared awful stories of sign language retarding children’s speech and parents standing in front of their 4-year-olds begging, “Milk!!!  Can you just SAY milk?!?!?”

I bought the Signing Time DVDs.  I waffled on the topic.  I consulted Robin, who was lukewarm.  Miles and I watched the DVDs occasionally, but I didn’t commit to practicing the signs in everyday life. We were at an impasse for a couple months.  And ultimately, I made the decision the way most important parenting decisions are made: in a moment of desperation. 

During a weeklong bout of the flu, with a sad and peaked Miles hanging all over my sad and haggard self, I started playing the Signing Time DVD every day.  (Okay, sometimes twice a day.)  Miles liked it, and it kept him engaged for twenty minutes or so.  Before I knew it, we were all signing like maniacs.  And now we are completely, zealously hooked.

How can I explain the awesomeness of communicating with a 16-month-old?  Perhaps with an example.  He runs over to the bed where our cat is all curled up and, smiling at me, signs a two-word sentence, “cat sleeping.”

“Yes Miles, Luna is sleeping,” I say.  “We don’t bother her when she’s sleeping.”   And he smiles, signs “sleep” a few more times, and moves on.

Signing  has changed the way he looks at books.  He studies the pages intently for familiar images, then points ecstatically and signs “ball” or “bird” or “cat” or “food.”  He sometimes “reads” like this for twenty minutes at a time by himself (miracle!), poring through the pages.

Signing often lets me know what Miles is thinking about.  We’ll be sitting around doing something, maybe finishing lunch, and he’ll look thoughtful and start making the sign for baby. “Okay, Miles, go get your baby doll,” I say.  And he runs into our bedroom and pulls the doll out of its bin, squeezing and rocking it blissfully.  When he is hungry, he walks to into the kitchen signing “food.”  When he is thirsty, he bangs on the refrigerator and signs “milk” or “water”, depending on what he wants.

And he’s talking up a storm!  I have no way of knowing whether he’s talking more or less than he would otherwise — there’s no control group when you raise your kid, so there’s no looking back — but his talk is just delightful.  When he’s really jazzed about something, he says it and signs it at the same time.   A million times a day he approaches me saying, “Book?  Book?  Book?  Book!” as his little hands press together and apart, like he’s opening and closing a book.  If I don’t get the point, he signs “read,” picks up the book, and hands it to me. 

“Dog” is another one he likes to both sign and say, and “cat.”  In the morning, when Robin is trying to get ready for work, he follows her around signing and saying, “Ball! Ball? Ball!  Ball-Ball-Ball!!!”  And, astoundingly the other morning, “Momma, ball!” 

Other sign-and-say words include shoes, bird, bath.  Several words he signs but can’t say very clearly — milk, hurt, water, baby, doll, car, sleep, drink, sorry, thank you, potty and train come to mind, though there are more.   And some words he just says and we never sign.  For one thing, he says “teeth” because his latest passion is brushing his teeth.  He says “spoon” and “bowl.”  He also says “cheese” quite clearly and politely.  I wish you could hear him.  “Cheese? Cheese?”

And, best of all, he has made up a few signs himself.  Phone is a hand to the ear and a questioning sound, like “Eh?”  Hat is a pat on his own head.  Brush is a brushing motion he makes in his hair with his fingers.  Robin has decided we ought to contact the American Sign Language Association and ask them to add Miles’ signs to the official sign language dictionary.

It’s hard to take pictures of him signing, so I’ll just leave you with some other gems.

Hanging window shades.


Spitting in the sink.

Practicing yoga.



And, because there’s no such thing as too much fedora…


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