Monday, May 28, 2012
Numbers and words
I thought I had seen some persistence and hard work in 15 years of teaching college students, but now that I have a toddler, it's becoming clear to me that I didn't know anything about the subject before. Little Bug wants to learn numbers, and he's not going to quit--or release any of his nearby teachers--until he's succeeded.
It started a couple of weeks ago, when we broke out a number puzzle our friend Cathleen had given him for Christmas. I felt a little foolish--at 1 year nine months, there's no urgency about him learning numbers, and I'm not even sure if it's developmentally appropriate yet. I wondered if I was like some striving parent trying to get their toddler ready for Harvard through relentless drilling in facts and skills--you know, the kind that advocates of free play think kills creativity and destroys the joy of childhood. But these same folks say let your toddler lead--and Bug proceeded to keep me sitting at the table for two hours, well past bedtime, as I demonstrated counting and he fit the numbers into the puzzles with little fingers barely coordinated enough for the task. We finally quit because I was exhausted--he would've kept going.
Since then, it's been all about the numbers. Finding the numbers on the squishy play tiles in the living room. Trying to learn how to hold the other fingers down so he can hold up two and three fingers. His favorite song is "Numbers Rumba," where he can jump up and down and hold up the number of fingers in the verse (I can't imagine how sick the neighbors must be of that song, since he asks for it every morning). More number puzzles, including a clock one, and refrigerator magnets. Most recently, he's become obsessed with Charles Blow's editorial in the New York Times last Friday, which recaps the numbers (in a large column to the side) from a recent Times-Picayune series about how many people are incarcerated in Louisiana's obscene for-profit prison system--1,619 per 100,000 residents, more than double the rate for the U.S. as a whole (730). For each of the past four mornings, Little Bug has poured over that column of numbers, asking me to ask him to find the 1s, the 2s, and so on. Talk about a gut-rippingly poignant moment in contemporary childhood.
But the other thing that makes it poignant is that he still can't say the numbers. A month ago, he got diagnosed with an articulation disorder--a speech problem that has to do with his awareness of and coordination in his mouth and tongue. There was plenty of good news in the assessment of the early childhood development specialists. He's not a late talker because of a cognitive or neurological problem--in fact, he tested out as very bright and super-coordinated. This has nothing to do with his difficult start in life, being intubated for his first 11 days, or not getting oxygen around his birth. It will get better, probably before he's three, but not on its own. He can start speech therapy at two, and in the meantime, we can teach him names of parts of his mouth, practice blowing bubbles and any instrument you can blow, and ask for more speech. It's working--he can follow directions like, "put your tongue on the roof of your mouth behind your teeth to say 't'." He's gotten good with train whistles and harmonicas and a recorder. His first tries at words are often astonishingly bad, "Sa!" for yes--but he's adding words by rote, learning the parts one by one. "Llama" and "no no" have gotten really good, while "dog" and "bubbles" and a host of others are coming along. That first night he kept me up with number puzzles he astonished me with a sentence--as he signed for the ten millionth time that he heard a car on the street outside the window, and I obligingly verbalized--slightly numb from the repetition--"did you hear a car go by?" He popped out with "go by!" Startled, I said, "did you say, go by?" and he replied, "Car go by!" grinning from ear to ear.
He is stunningly not-fazed by his struggles to talk. He is an exuberant and confident communicator, certain that if he is just inventive enough we'll understand him. Last night he wanted us to hand him some of the bark that was providing soft material underneath the play structure at the park so he could throw it and watch it go down the slide. He signed "barf" (he made that one up, but we knew it). We were confused and asked if he felt sick. He barked like a dog. We guessed it and laughed. Jennifer took him over to a tree and showed him where bark came from, and explained that it was a different word from barf. He climbed to the top of the slide again, and signed "tree" and "barf." He wanted some tree barf. Perfectly clear.
As his thoughts get more complicated, though, we're increasingly frustrated, even if he's not. We're approaching the horizon of our baby sign and ASL skills. Our apps and signing videos have 100-150 signs, but he needs more words, and the grammar and syntax are beyond us. We feel incredibly lucky that we started down the baby sign path--the first thing speech therapists often do with articulation-disorder kids when they are two is to start teaching them sign, because by then toddlers have sometimes developed pervasive communication disorders, have poor receptive language, little ability to communicate with others, and are sometimes tantrum-ing, frustrated kids who go on to develop reading problems, too. We don't (knock on wood) seem to have any of that.
It just seems increasingly like we are always playing charades with Little Bug. For example: Bug was looking at a picture of naked newborn in a Times article about home births (yes, he spends too much time reading the newspaper. We're not advocating it to him--it's just that it's there at the breakfast table, so he looks at it). He signed "poop." I squinted at the picture. I said, "that baby isn't pooping!" He shook his head no. I haven't understood. He pointed at his diaper. I squinted at him. I said, "that baby isn't wearing a diaper, either." He signed "poop." "Oh," I say, "do you mean, that baby should be wearing a diaper, in case he poops?" Little bug squeals in delight and claps. One point for Mama Laura's team in toddler charades. He points at the picture and frowns. Our stern little sanitarian does not approve of naked-bottomed babies.
Once he learns how to make the sounds, the speech specialist assured us, Little Bug will get from 50 words to 350 in no time.
In the meantime, we'll keep trying words by rote. Today's word? Two, of course.