Twenty easy-peasy tips for supporting language development

Happy Children Playing Kids

Happy Children Playing Kids (Photo credit: epSos.de)

When Nica was only a baby, I was nervous about not knowing how to talk to her to help her develop language. Does that sound odd? I don’t know where I got that from, honestly. Lots of people will say ‘oh, they’ll learn sooner or later, one way or another, just from being around people talking’… While that is true, I have also found, from all the research I did to allay those initial first-time-mom nerves, that there are attitudes, approaches and techniques that some parents develop naturally (while others may need to learn them) that can make a difference to how much and how fast children learn language. Each child is unique and even applying this ‘program’ equally to all children would not of course ensure they were all speaking in full sentences by the age of one… but it is about maximising their potential for acquiring new language.

Afterall, not all households are equal in the way that children are exposed to language. For example…

  • Is there continual background noise from TV or radio or long periods of silence in which to explore making sounds? Do adults mostly talk to each other over the child or do they involve the child and talk directly to them?
  • And if they are talking directly to the child are they asking incessant, ‘testing’ questions or are they putting words to what he sees?
  • For that matter, are they trying to shift the kids onto their adult view point or are they entering the child’s world and speaking about what the child sees from their eye-level and about what is interesting to them?
  • Do grown-ups get down and talk to children eye-to-eye or shout at them from across the room and then get mad if the kid doesn’t immediately follow their ‘order’?
  • Is there one language in the household or two (or more) and how much do they overlap by?
  • Is the baby treated like a package to be moved here or there or are they treated with respect and like they understand so much, from day one?…

Yes, there are many, many variables which means there are things that work better and things that are less helpful when it comes to a child picking up language.

As I say, I was nervous, so I read a lot (that is what I do, when I feel adrift). So, now, I want to share with you all some of the things I learned on that journey of how to tune in and help our children develop their language skills to the best of their ability and in their own time – without ever pushing, testing or putting any pressure on them to know any more than they feel enthused to learn for themselves. We are very much following their lead, here, but doing it from an informed point of view, rather than just hoping for the best.

Here are my top tips for talking to the zero to two year old set:

  1. Turn off the TV. Even if you are a hard-core tele-addict (which honestly I can empathise with), try and turn off the TV even if for only 30 minutes a day – but more is better. Babies are unable to distinguish background from foreground sound. Any background noise seriously messes up their chances of focussing on the sounds coming out of your mouth… or the toy they are banging on, or even the sounds they themselves are uttering. They need to be able to really pick apart which sounds they are creating, what is doing what, which sound is coming from whose mouth etc. This helps them build their first understanding of cause and effect as well as help them begin to build associations between words and objects or people. The more clearly they can hear you, the faster they can begin to learn. So, give it a go: turn off the TV, especially before your kids are two.
  2. Carve out half an hour a day of one-to-one time with each child:  You are dedicating this half an hour a day to connect and communicate with your child – is this not what being a parent is all about? The idea is that you let them lead the exploration and play, completely, in this time. And, of course, make sure there is no background noise or interruptions. It can feel hard, to begin with, to just ‘be’, with no props, just you watching and following your kid’s lead in play but the pay-off is immense in terms of closeness, understanding and language development. Ideally you are aiming for half an hour per day with each child – if you can’t do that, do as close to that as you can: 15 minutes with each child/a day or 30 minutes with one kid one day, 30 minutes with another the next. The important thing is that you have one-to-one time where all the language is for them. Here is my first post on this practice and the research that led to it.
  3. Create shared focus: apart from the no TV rule, this is the single most important tip I ever received about supporting emerging language skills: talk about what they are interested in, at the time they are interested in it. Children are far more likely to remember a word if it is about something they are focussed on – this is proven. In the case of babies (and this applies to toddlers, too, really) the best way to create shared focus is for you to jump onto their wavelength. Don’t try and pull them to yours (“look at that birdie”; “play with this toy, this way”), all the time. Try and use this as time to get to know your child and what fascinates them and holds their attention. And then speak about what they are engaged with, or in other words…
  4. ‘Sportscast’. Narrate (from the child’s view point) what they are seeing, touching, smelling, hitting, etc. – especially for that half-hour a day but also at other opportune moments in the day. This is a version of what Magda Gerber, author and founder of RIE (Resources for Infant Educators), calls ‘sportscasting’. It works wonders not only for helping children interface with the world but later, as they grow older, with other children, too, even averting and disarming all manner of childish spats. But at the tender ages when language is first developing (say between 9 and 15 months) the primary purpose of narrating a child’s activities back to them, in my view, is to give them words for that which they are experiencing. And, as I said above, children learn the most when it is something they are actively engaged in (rather than something we want to teach them). It is amazing how much a child’s first words can reveal to us about what their priorities are. My kid’s first signs (which came before spoken words) were all about things which she loved, like ducks, ceiling fans and lights – hah!
  5. Scaffold: my mum, the language teacher, tells me this is a term coined by Vygotsky. If I understand it correctly, it is basically a fancy word for continuing to speak to your kid about one level ahead of where they are at, if that makes sense. You provide the ‘scaffolding’ for them to learn at their own pace. You don’t speak to them in long, rushed, complicated sentences that are way above their ‘pay grade’; nor do you speak about stuff that is not in the room and expect them to understand (not when they are babies, at least); you also don’t need to teach them with flash cards… nor, to go to the other extreme, do you need to either talk down to them or, worse still, talk to them like Elmo or like you yourself are a toddler who doesn’t quite grasp grammar yet (‘daddy take ba-ba’?!). Talk to babies in real sentences with real words but…
  6. Keep it simple. Make sure to enunciate and speak clearly. Not all the time, in some uber-self-conscious kind of a way. They need to hear natural speech flow with its inflections, emphasis, tone, etc… but when you are speaking directly to them, it can be helpful to think of babies almost like little foreigners to whom you do the respect of speaking with easy, ‘beginner’ words, with clarity and enthusiasm. But mix it up and pop some more advanced words in there every now and again – they may surprise you and repeat a five syllable word right back at you.
  7. Have fun. Nothing squelches learning faster than being ‘taught’ or worse still, being ‘corrected’. That just presses us back into our emotional shells where we want to hide until we know we will be safe rather than humiliated or made to feel small. So for the sake of your child’s learning but also for the health of your relationship and, perhaps more importantly, just for your own enjoyment as a family, keep it light, joyful and playful.
  8. Learn and share basic sign languageI have blogged much about this before, but essentially, babies are able to communicate using their hands months before they are able to do so with sound. This is because it only takes a few muscles to shape your hand into a sign whereas speaking involves coordinating your breathing, your vocal chords, your mouth shape, your tongue position – all together. It is no wonder it takes a while to master. Children as young as six months can make their first signs. It gives you a real window of insight into a child’s mind, what they notice, what they are interested in but most importantly it gives them an avenue to begin to express to you all that is inside them, from basic needs like ‘milk’ or ‘potty’ to their wonder of the world (‘cat’!!). Research has also shown that babies who are taught to sign actually benefit from a lasting boost to not only their language skills but also their IQ so that at “8 years, those who had used sign language as babies scored an average of 12 points higher in IQ on the WISC-III than their non-signing peers.”
  9. Be responsive: when your baby coos, coo back; when they ga-ga, ga-ga right back at them. This is the first lesson in communication: that we listen and respond, that we take turns, that we talk to each other – this is all valuable information that babies use as foundation for learning how to talk.
  10. Be positive. As they get older and start to use real words, make sure to notice and emphasise what they are getting right. In fact, it is a helpful rule of thumb to respond to most attempts at labelling something by saying ‘Yes‘. They say ‘bid’ you say ‘yes, it is a bird’. This helps build their confidence that, first and foremost, you did understand what they were trying to communicate. Then any ‘correction’ is easier to receive, too, right and kind of seamless. I call it ‘auto-correct’:
  11. Aut0-correct. If they make a mistake no need to make a big song and dance about it, afterall they are only little and, frankly, doing an AMAZING job at picking up language from scratch at an alarming rate, I am sure. So instead of saying ‘no, it is not a do-d0, it is a dog, can you say DOG?’, try simply repeating back to the child what they said but using ‘auto-correct’ (like a kind of auto-tune but for words – lol). They say ‘it is a do-do’, you say, ‘yes, it is a dog’ (correction made and heard. No fuss.)
  12. Practice expansion. ‘Expansion’ in this context, is when you gently, lovingly, seamlessly expand on what your child has just said – this is a part of scaffolding, really. You repeat what they said back to them but add onto it, for example they say ‘ball’ you say, “Yes, it is a red ball” – you expanded on what they said emphasising one word addition to what they said. As they get older and bolder you can get fancy with this but the basics of ‘expansion’ is just about agreeing and adding to what they are saying in very small increments so that they are anchored in a word they do know and can add another one on, in the right place, with your help.
  13. Repeat, repeat, repeat. If there is a new object or word you are noticing they are interested in, repeat it in different contexts. ‘Ah, you see the crane. It is a big crane, isn’t it? Shall we go take a closer look at that blue crane?’, etc…
  14. Make sound effects: kids adore them. A love of language and communication starts often with a love of sounds, of exchanging them backward and forward between mama and baby (or papa or granny or… and baby). It doesn’t need to be about words, animal sounds, the car vrooooooming by, the prellllllllll sound you make when you pick baby up and the ‘ping’ of the toaster popping (repeated by daddy for fun) can all become little ‘word games’ that delight your little listener.
  15. Read or recite lots of fun little nursery rhymes – kids enjoy them and the ability to recognise and create rhymes is an important milestone in a child’s language development that shows how they are grasping and manipulating sounds. Kids especially like the ones with accompanying actions like ‘pat-a-cake’ or ‘ring around the roses’.
  16. Read simple books with lots of repetition to build word-familiarity. (but don’t worry, they’ll make sure you really get the ‘repetition’ part of this tip.)
  17. Sing – singing is another fun way to practice new words, often with rhyming, too. And because of the rhythm, it can make it easier to memorise.
  18. Tell stories. I am a huge fan of story telling for kids. The little ones especially like stories about themselves, either real or imagined (as long as they are the protagonists). Auto-biographical stories like this actually help integrate the right and the left hemispheres of the brain as well as to provide narrative for events of emotional significance in a child’s life. The book ‘The Whole Brain Child’ by Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson really goes into the power of story telling as a technique not only for locking-in vocabulary but also for developing memory (exercising it like a muscle, really) – as well as for processing and integrating difficult or emotional events (such as a car accident, for example – although I feel that is food for another post). I also LOVE this post by Jennifer of Hybrid Rasta Mama on the power of story telling for young children. I am convinced our daily ritual of a bedtime story has really helped my daughter remember words for the things and people she sees each day in a way she would not otherwise do.
  19. Get down to their level, engage in eye contact and let them read your lips: this is such a simple tip and yet it can yield great benefits. And it is all about respect, too – you are showing them you care and respect them enough to make the effort to come to where they are and look them in the eye while you talk to them. Who doesn’t feel appreciated when they are engaged with, fully? Plus kids can learn a lot from simply mimicking the shapes you make with your mouth as you talk.
  20. Listen. When a kid talks, pay attention. If possible, ‘listen with your eyes’ as we say in our family. Demonstrate that you are really engaged in what they are saying by focussing on them with all your energy for a moment (even if to say, ‘I need to give the cooking my full attention right now, but you are really important to me and I want to hear what you have to say, so as soon as I am done here, it will be your turn and I will give you my full attention’)…
Put it together and what do you get? An awareness and enjoyment of language exploration with your kid, that is non-stop, along with half an hour a day of dedicated one-on-one connection and communication time, free of distractions, that is all about following your child’s lead and talking about the things (toys, animals, movements) that catch their eye and that are interesting to them. You really learn a lot about your child doing this and as a result both of you feel more and more in tune. It is also proven to boost not only their language skills but their IQ, too – in the long run. Why not give this approach a try?
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See also

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Please note: I am neither a childcare professional nor a speech therapist. I am a mom and the above is my opinion only and is not a substitute for professional advice. If you suspect your child has any language delays you should speak to your doctor or seek the help of a specialist that can help your child overcome any potential or actual issues.

With love,

~Gauri

A compostable potty – why did nobody tell me about this?

So, did you know that you can buy a potty that is both made from eco-friendly materials and completely biodegradable? Nope, I didn’t either. But I stumbled across the Becopotty on Amazon (okay, hardly hidden, right?) and now I just don’t understand why more people aren’t buzzing about it.

It is made from rice husks and bamboo waste and is super-durable and yet, if you plant it in your garden it will immediately begin to decompose. Magic.

It is a little on the small size (even for my 22 mo kid who is ‘young’ by many people’s potty training standards) but it is fully functional and it has become our travel potty – the one I carry everywhere I go. I love that it is compact and one-piece which is much easier to deal with when we are out and about. I also like that it looks like a potty – it doesn’t have bells, sing a tune or have Disney characters plastered all over it. It is just a potty – which gets Penguin* used to the fact that potties are for peeing and pooping in. That is it. They are not toys and we expect nothing from them but relief :)

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Disclaimers? There are none! I don’t normally blog about products, at all. I don’t get any endorsements and I am sure BecoThings who make this potty have never heard of me. Translation: this is a completely independent review.

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* Ummm… yeah, still experimenting with online nicknames for my little one. Perhaps this one will stick?? Hahaha!

 

How I became the crazy Baby-Signs-woman (and how you could, too!)

When I was pregnant I heard about this quirky little thing called Baby Sign Language. Apparently – I was told – babies can learn how to use sign language before they can speak. Baby Sign Language is mostly advertised as being good to reduce toddler frustration (at not being able to tell you what they really, really want right now!). I googled it and found this super-cute (if a bit manic) video:

The whole thing sounded interesting and after all if monkeys can sign, I figured my little one could, too!… But watching the video I thought “This baby can do 30 signs! That is crazy. If I do it I’ll just teach my kid about 5 or 10 signs, the really important things she needs to communicate to me – sleep, toilet, food, water… that kind of thing. Surely the woman in the video is some kind of pushy-super-uber-mom with too much time on her hands. I’ll just keep it simple and help my kid express the key things that will keep her from wigging out.” Good plan. God laughed.

At 19 months my kid had over 200 signs. How the ‘eck did that happen?!

Gzzzzzzzzzzzz – rewind a bit, again.

This is how it went down. After hearing about it, still not entirely convinced, I got out the book Baby Signs by Dr. Linda Acredolo and Dr. Susan Goodwyn (albeit in its first edition – which is kind of sweet in its dated-ness). The book got me and I got really, really into this idea of teaching my kid to sign. I have since realised that I have a keen interest in language and watching and supporting my kid acquire hers, in general… but I didn’t know that then, this was just the start of the journey.

Through my research, I discovered sign language has a few (inter-related) advantages and I liked them all:

  1. It helps your baby communicate with you – telling you what is important to them and what they want you to focus on, with them
  2. It helps you know what is going on for them, opening a (super-interesting) window on your child’s mind and helping you get even closer to them
  3. It reduces the frustration, for your child, of knowing what they want but not being able to tell you
  4. It acts as a bridge to language, priming their brain to learn the to-and-fro of communication more easily and earlier
  5. It improves cognitive function and IQ – and research indicates the results are lasting
  6. It is good fun [honestly that is probably the main reason we went so far with it: because I was loving it, too]
  7. It is a great language to share as a family. You and your partner can have fun signing across a crowded room or over your kid’s head when they are not looking :p  And older siblings often love showing signs to their new little sibs :)

This book taught me many of my first signs. At this stage, though, I became convinced it would really help if both parents were on board, so I thought the easiest and most fun way to involve NinjaDad would be to go to a class – so he/we could learn in a social setting. As luck would have it, a friend decided to host a class at her house – so we joined that one. The instructor would come in and teach us, on a weekend – perfect! And so it was that NinjaDad started to get really excited by it, too.

We taught our kid her first sign when she was six months old. That sign was food and I repeated it every time she had a meal. She signed her first word when she was nine months old. That means there was a three month gap in which I was signing frantically to her and I was getting nothing back. I almost gave up. Her first sign was ‘fan’ – as in ceiling fan. Her next two signs were ‘duck’ and ‘light’. She didn’t sign ‘food’ until she was over a year old (and had well over 50 signs under her belt). That taught me my first lesson: she is going to be most enthusiastic and motivated to sign about the things that she finds interesting not about the things I think are important. Hahahah! I guess I should be flattered, as a mom, that she never felt she had an urgent need to ask for food…
Then we just kept going. I was forever wondering when we’d stop. Oh, I’ll only teach her 50 or so. But then we’d get to 50 and her thirst for knowing more and more would egg me on. She would point at things and look at me expectantly. So I bought a book, initially a simple ASL visual dictionary, so I could look up the signs she wanted to learn from me. Eventually that book stopped fulfilling all our needs (as it was not geared to kids, I guess) and I caughtened on to the fact that the easiest way to look up signs is online. And we were off. Her signed vocab kept growing and growing. And, alongside, her first words were coming in, too.
Then, at around 18 months there was a shift, and her interest in spoken words became much more acute than her interest in signs. At 19 months, as I said, she had just over 200 signs and coincidentally she had 200 spoken words, too (yes I kept lists). And that is where it stopped. She just started acquiring so many new spoken words and at such a speed that she seemed to have no need for signs any more. She was off.
And here is that other thing they say about signers: they sometimes use spoken words a little later, but they catch up quickly and often overtake the ‘average’ non-signing kid. Signing kids tend to have an aptitude for language, acquiring new words and moving on to complex sentences earlier than otherwise expected.
Honestly it is hard to tell for me. Most of my AP friends’ babies have stupidly large vocabs for their ages. And, of course, Anya (giving up on nicknames!!) is billingual, too, so goodness knows what that does to all this but I can say (with frank admiration) that at 21 months she speaks in five and six word sentences, with aplomb.
Yes, some of it is ‘nature’. Some kids are more interested in language than others, of course. But I am also convinced (and studies show) that there is more to it, too. There are things that help your kid develop language (and subsequently boost their IQ), such as:
  • speaking with them, describing the world and what you are doing, ‘narrating’ your day
  • developing ‘shared focus’ – speaking about what they are  looking at or interacting with in that moment, following their natural interest
  • getting down at eye level and letting them read your lips, literally (giving them valuable information about how to form their mouths around the words)
  • reading books, singing songs together, having fun with language and sounds
  • being supportive, positive and responsive when children attempt to communicate, in any form

and

  • teaching kids sign-language
So, if your baby is between say 4 and 14 months old and you want to teach them sign language, here are some tips for starting:
  1. get a book on baby sign language (from the library?) to get you into it and/or
  2. go online and read more about the history and benefits of it
  3. go to a local Baby Signs or baby ASL class or
  4. just jump right in: go straight to a sign language site and learn a few signs to teach your baby and then follow their lead on which to learn next
  5. involve your partner and other family members
  6. be consistent – keep repeating the sign every time the object or action appears in your shared field of view
  7. make sure you sign about what they are interested in or looking at at the time (try not to direct them to look at things, so much – it is more effective to ‘sports-cast’ the world from their eye’s view than to try to get them to look at what we think they should/would be interested in, all the time)
  8. be patient – depending on your kid’s age and how consistent you are with it, it could take many months before they produce their first sign back to you. The younger the child, the longer it takes
  9. check-out the Baby Sign books for kids for another cute way to show your kid some signs – and let them think they can ‘read’
  10. have fun with it, include lots of silly, playful signs. Does your child play with your kitty a lot? Learn the sign for cat. Does your kid love balloons? That is a super-sweet sign.

And remember ASL is a real language (sorry if that is too obvious to bear!) which means that your kid will be (at least) billingual if you teach them ASL. If you keep it up with them, which some families chose to do, it opens a world of opportunity up to them: ASL can be taken for credit in College, it can lead to a career or vocation in interpreting or teaching sign language (for the kids or the hearing impaired) and, perhaps most importantly, it can help communicate with a group of people, a community which otherwise can be so separate from this hearing community of ours. This could even be a small step in bringing these two worlds closer. But let’s keep it basic for now. After all, I am the ‘crazy baby signs woman’, my kid knows 200 signs which means I know considerably more than that and I still can’t really communicate with a true signer. I can’t keep up. But this is a step, a fun step in the right direction and a great leap for your kid’s language skills. Do it. I promise you’ll (eventually) have lots of fun with it!

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Did you teach your kid(s) signing? How was it for you? Did they take to it? Did you find you became the crazy-sign-language-parent, too?

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P.S. this post is littered with links – check ’em out for more tips, research and resources.

How we (playfully) put an end to nipple biting

Ouch! My daughter recently started biting me at the end of a feed. It wasn’t very aggressive, as such, it was more one of those ‘I am bored and there is no more milk and I want to get a reaction out of you’ kind of bites. She would come off the breast, bite me and then when I said ‘ow’ she would smile like it was the cutest, cleverest thing she ever did – which as you may imagine didn’t endear me to her, in that moment. I am usually very patient (it is one of my rare virtues) but this was pushing my commitment to gentle parenting.

I didn’t want to fight her on this – I knew that. I mean, sometime back, when she went through a little biting phase (which retrospectively I realised was actually due to a funky latch caused by teething) I tried a more conventional ‘no biting – we treat mama’s breasts with love, respect and gratitude’ along with taking her off the breast. She did stop, but the feeling was always more adversarial than co-operative. Surely all my new-found knowledge about parenting through connection could help me find a better, more resonant way.

So, I got to thinking about her needs. What she clearly wanted here was to engage me and get a reaction out of me. So, I started wondering how we could both get what we needed. I remembered this game from Lawrence Cohen’s Playful Parenting

The original game is about dealing with ‘naughty’ words. It is very simple. If a kid says a potty word, for example, trying to get a reaction out of you, you simply respond by saying, in a clearly lighthearted way: “you can say ‘sh*t’ as much as you like as long as you don’t say…” and insert a funny-sounding, long word like ‘schmoopotilupo’. Invariably what happens is that they will immediately say this new, forbidden word. Then you give them a huge reaction. “Oh, no, now you are going to get it” and run after them and tickle them, for example, or maybe pile onto them in a mock wrestling move or whatever works for you. Everybody wins. They get to play with being wayward and they get the reaction, connection and attention they clearly needed at that moment. You get to have fun AND ensure your kid is keeping their language clean. It really works. Try it!

Well, I thought, since the scenario was kind of similar (the need was to get a rise out of me) I could try something similar to help with the biting. If she bit me and looked up at me with mischievous eyes, I said: “you can bite there as much as you like as long as you don’t touch my belly button”. Like clockwork she puts her finger right in my bellybutton and I give her the biggest, loudest, silliest reaction ever. I yelp and giggle, tickle her and pat her bum, all while being really noisy and over the top.

Now it is effortless, if Nica wants to engage me and get a big energetic burst of a reaction out of me, she just pushes my belly button. I call it the ‘Push Here for a Reaction’ game. And it is great, we transformed what was an angsty situation into a playful game. She still gets a rise out of me but now it is a wholly fun and positive reaction whereas before it was anger-fuelled. Plus she has a new and very easy way of signalling when she is feeling disconnected from me without having to act-up. She gets to be the initiator and can choose a positive interaction over a… less positive one. And the biting has stopped.

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Have you tried similar playful ways to tackle situations you were previously being reactive to? I’d love to hear some of the playful parenting successes from your life? Or if you go away and try a version of these two games the ‘forbidden words’ or ‘push here for a reaction’, do come back and let us know how they work for you. Cheers,

Gauri

Self-image: what is this ‘Self’ of which you talk?

"Mirror, mirror on the stall" - Bang...

Image by Sailing "Footprints: Real to Reel" (Ronn ashore) via Flickr

This is a post about a post about a post. That post is about living without mirrors.

I did that once or twice, when travelling. It feels great and is very freeing. You feel like you look gorgeous all the time. I also found I forgot about race and thought I looked just like everyone around me (Asian in this case… but I am actually white). And then I saw a mirror and realised I had the worse case of acne ever! My hubby had said, ‘I am so proud of you, you have got all these spots and you are totally cool about it’. I shrieked: ‘I have spots?’ and ran for the nearest mirror, in terror. Hah.

Meanwhile, the other day, I was musing about what it must be doing to this generation of kids that is growing up with a camera in their face, mirrors EVERYWHERE, TV, smart-phones, etc. They are aware of what they look like from so early on. Pip (DD’s nickname – making a slow transition to using it on here) has started not only playing ‘photographer’ but posing for photos, too. She is 20 months old. The thing with this heightened awareness of what you look like, from so young is that it must also make you more likely to identify with the body, first and foremost, no?

From a spiritual point of view this is kind of journeying in the ‘wrong’ direction. Okay, it is normal to start off thinking we are the body but most of us realise quickly there is more of import, here. The you might find yourself asking: Am I the body? Am I the mind? Am I the spirit or are am I something beyond even all of these?

I once had a very powerful conversation with a patient in a hospice I used to volunteer at about that. He was a Christian evangelical preacher. I come from an Advaita background. Advaita is a direct-path (or mystic) branch of Hinduism. I am not so into the philosophy of it all, nowadays. Just the practice. Anyway, the point is that this man, this black-power, formerly homeless man with whom on the surface I had nothing in common with bonded very deeply. This one time he confided in me about the pain in his body and his fear of death. For a moment, in the middle of a noisy room, full of people, I asked if he was the body. He said ‘no’. In seconds the conversation went from small talk to real connection. He told me he knew he was not the body, he was not the mind. He was prior to all that…

Perhaps being surrounded by mirrors and images of your physical form will bring these questions on sooner for some… for others it will undoubtedly keep them focussed on the shiny veneer, distracted from looking any deeper. Sad?

The post that sparked this post: The Path Less Taken: A Year Without Mirrors.

Open love letter to my daughter

I was “challenged” by Mother on Mother Earth to write this post, so I thought I’d take a break from the serious business of blogging (uh?…) and do this fun, easy one instead. Here is her sweet post. I have some other posts in the pipeline but life has gotten hectic, so in the meantime…

Ten things I love about you, my baby, right now: 

  1. I admire and revel in your independence: I love it when you play on your own and talk to yourself for ages, often ‘re-living’ scenes or rehearsing words from that day.
  2. I marvel when you ‘count’: “1, 3, 5” pointing at your fingers or at the objects, each in turn. Cracks me up!
  3. I am just so impressed by how resilient you are. You seem to bounce back from most of life’s little trials (like falling off the climbing frame) so easily and get straight ‘back on that horse’. It amazes me and teaches me so much.
  4. I love how much you make me laugh. You are very serious and intense much of the time, figuring things out. You often also like to take your time getting to know new people and places, taking it all in first, but when you are in a fun, light-hearted, playful place, girl, you are hilarious – and your laughter is totally infections. And on that note…
  5. I think it is the best when we get into a ‘giggle loop’ – we just look at each other and laugh… and then keep setting each other off, for minutes at a time. We have been doing this since you were a little baby!
  6. I find your hair beautiful – it is brown but reflects auburn in the light. It is just like mine but I never appreciated it on me. On you I just think it is the most precious, wondrous stuff!
  7. I love to see your character emerge and you seem to be so fastidious and like things ‘just so’. I love how you put your shoes away when we get home (unprompted) or how you put books back on the shelf at the bookshop and library. Figuring out form-and-function definitely seems to be one of your highest joys and you appear to like to know how things work socially, too. You want to understand the ‘rules’ and then demonstrate that you totally get it, I mean, already at 18 months you love saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ (and/or signing it) despite the fact that we have never pushed that, we just model it. I think you think it is ‘just what is done’ :)
  8. I am so impressed at how switched on you are and how often you continue to surprise me by how much you understand and can communicate. You language skills have been blowing me away!
  9. You have the cutest bum. I love the way you walk with a little waddle of your sweet bum-bum!
  10. I adore how imaginative you are and, for example, that you turned the basketball net into a swing for your koala. Freaking fabulous!

Now I am supposed to tag 5 mommy-bloggers to do the same (each of you is asked to list 10 things you love about your kid(s) then tag 5 mothers/bloggers to do the same). Here are my five:

I have tried to chose mammas who are comfortable with blogging about their own kids, but let me know if this ain’t for you and I’ll re-nominate :)

lions for boys, butterflies for girls? why gender-specific apparel is so last generation.

My baby doesn’t know what gender she is and I am sure she doesn’t care. This point was brought home to me when I saw her, the other day, trying on my shoes and then trying on her dad’s shoes. She has no concept (at 16 months) of girl-shoes and boy-shoes. They are just shoes.

Today, I read this article and it got me going again! It really bugs me how ‘gendered’ everything is. The cheap stuff (the stuff in my budget) is all very pink or very blue. More than that it annoys me that animals have been gendered, too. Kittens, bunnies and butterflies for girls; dogs, dinosaurs, lions and monkeys for boys. What is that all about? Like the lion as a species doesn’t have females – strong, elegant females, I may add? And it turns out Anya loves monkeys – again there is such a thing as female monkeys.

I get where the stereotype comes from: animals which display the characteristics which we currently, in our society, label as male (like playfulness, assertiveness/aggression, strength, hunting prowess, etc.) most often adorn boy clothes; and animals which are seen as cute, sweet and harmless are plastered on pink girl clothes. Aaarrgh. Still it irks me, what if my girl wants to grow up to be an amazing, strong ‘hunter’ type?

Don’t get me wrong, I love pink and am happy for her to wear pink – mostly fuchsia, rather than demure, sweet ‘baby pink’. But she also wears blue and green and even (*gasp*) clothes with lions and monkeys on it – which, by the way, she looves.

She also loves cars, trucks and tractors so we have those around, too. My approach is to follow her lead – give her variety and let her chose. I am not about inverting the stereotypes which some parents seem to want to do: pink and dolls for boys, cars and dinosaurs for girls. Neither do I resonate with gender-neutrality meaning no pink and no blue in the house – only green and yellow for everyone. I think gender neutrality means freedom. It means you can wear pink – you just don’t have to (otherwise you are just replacing one tyranny or bias with another, surely). Above all, I think it is respectful to allow children to find what they like, as unique individuals – regardless of what them being of one sex makes it most likely they will be drawn to or, worse, what society says ‘good girls’ (or strong boys) should be drawn to.

I studied developmental psychology (a life-time ago). I remember that no matter how gender-neutral you make an environment, most girls are drawn to more social play, most boys start rough-and-tumble play early on. I don’t even want to get in the way of that. I think it is fine that our brains and bodies are structured differently… I am a ‘difference feminist’ afterall (as in ‘vive la diference‘) so let us each enjoy and celebrate our differences, as individuals, each our own personal mix of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ traits, likes and hobbies.

Of course, I am a product of my time and my education… and of my location (I live in San Francisco). We now know that sexuality, for example, is almost completely (if not completely) determined at birth. It is nature not nurture. I think, the more and more I observe little Anya and other babes grow up, that the same goes for so much of their character. So maybe our grandparents believed they could shape a baby, make a girl more girly by putting her in pink or a boy more manly by clothing him in blue… but I don’t think her temperament is mine for the shaping. I think it is hers for the discovering.