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Reading the Signs

Back in January, I wrote about teaching Carolyn sign language, and enough time has passed and things changed that it seems like a good time to revisit the topic.  (Also, our friend Gini wrote about it, and that spurred me into typing.)

As I mentioned back in January, we started out with Baby Signs but moved on to American Sign Language (ASL).  This has held true, and when the next child comes into our lives, we’ll use only ASL signs.  To me, the real value of Baby Signs is in showing you where to start: with needs like food, water, milk, and so on.  In moving to ASL, we’ve been immensely helped by the Signing Time video series, which Carolyn loves.  She watches one every other day or so, which is about as much TV as we let her watch, and she can identify each one with a different sign.

At the time I last wrote about it, Carolyn was using about thirty signs.  She’s now somewhere past two hundred signs—I don’t know the exact number, as Kat and I lost track a while ago.  This includes all the primary colors, emotional states, and much more.  She’s also started to speak, with about twenty or so verbal words.  It gets really fascinating when she combines them.

For example, she’s started asking me if I’m done working whenever I come downstairs from my office.  She does this by saying “Daddy?” while signing “work” and then “done”.  If I confirm that I’m done working for the day (or at least for the moment), she’ll do it all over again, except this time saying “Daddy” in a satisfied tone of voice instead of as a question.  Then we spend some time playing.

In fact, one of these exchanges led to Carolyn telling me what she wanted to do when she grows up.  After confirming that Daddy was done working for the day, she thought a minute, then signed “work” and emphatically pointed to herself.

You want to work?” I asked, a little bit surprised.  She nodded and said “yeah!” (one of her favorite spoken words).

“Okay”, said I, amused, “what do you want to do when you work?”

She thought a moment more and then signed “airplane”.  My mouth dropped open.

“You want to be a pilot?” I asked.

She said “yeah!” again, quite enthusiastically, and then ran off to kick a ball across the yard.

Now, it’s possible that Carolyn was saying that she wants to do whatever Daddy does, because when he leaves for a few days, he’s left on a plane.  But my gut feeling was that she was saying she wanted to work on or with airplanes.  Attendant, sure; engineer, why not?; but pilot was the first thing that came to mind.

Then again, about a week later, she told us she wanted to work on swings and slides.  So I guess she’s still evaluating her options.

She also can identify different bedtime stories through signs and speech.  “The Bear’s Water Picnic” is represented by the sign for “water”; “Goodnight Moon” by the sign for “moon”; “Pete the Sheep” by the spoken word “baa”; and so on.  Although she usually picks the same set of stories each night, she can clearly tell us when she wants something different.

For months now, Carolyn’s been able to distinguish between being hurt and being scared when she falls down.  As we hold her, we just ask her if the fall hurt or scared her, and she tells us.  That alone would have made the whole effort worthwhile, because she has told us what the problem is, and so we know how best to comfort her.  It also seems to calm her down simply to tell us, the same way it can make an adult feel better just to say out loud what is upsetting them.

She can also tell us when we’re being silly, when she’s surprised, and more.  When a baby near her cries, she always looks concerned.  We can tell her that the baby is sad, or grumpy, or hungry, and she can sign back the emotion to indicate she understands.

So has signing delayed her speech?  There’s no way to know.  Her speaking vocabulary is on track, according to our pediatrician: some kids do speak early, but to have three spoken words at 18 months is normal, and she was at five.  Plus over 100 signs, which has caused our pediatrician to consider her bilingual.  According to the father of a deaf child with whom I recently conversed, most independent studies show that signing has no major impact, positive or negative, on speech development, at least across the whole study group.

Regardless of whether or not the signing has slowed or sped Carolyn’s development of speech, it has quite definitely accelerated her ability to communicate.  That, to me, was the whole reason to use signs.  For a year now, she’s been able to communicate her needs and wants, and for at least half a year she’s been able to converse with us in some fairly complex ways.

Perhaps as a result of this, Carolyn is entirely capable of following multistep directions, like: “Please go pick up the stuffed cow and put it where it belongs, then come back to Mommy”.  If she’s nervous about a person or situation, we can find out what’s bothering her and show her that it’s okay; conversely, we can tell her when something is dangerous when it might not appear to be, like a hot plate, and get confirmation that she understands.  We’ve been able to teach her to sign “please”, “thank you”, and “excuse me”, and she understands when each is appropriate, sometimes saying them without prompting.  We can get her to calm down for a not-desired nap by asking what she wants to do instead of napping, and then telling her she can do it later, after she takes the nap.  In other words, she’ll agree to delay gratification, so long as we assure her that she’ll get what she wants after doing something that we want her to do.

Remember that she’s not yet two years old.

While Kat and I sometimes augment our words with signs, most of the time we just talk to Carolyn, and she responds with whatever combination of words and signs is needed.  So she has all kinds of exposure to speech, and her development in that regard seems fairly normal.  It could be that she’d have spoken earlier without the signs, but then again it could be that she’d have spoken later.  Maybe the signs have reduced the incentive to speak because she can get by without speech, or maybe the signs have shown her how powerful communication is and thus increased the incentive to speak.

We have no way to know, now or ever.  All that I know is that she has been communicating with us for many, many months more than she would have otherwise, and that she’s almost certainly a much happier and better-adjusted child as a result.

Back in May, I said that “…if you’re a new parent or a parent-to-be, I strongly recommend that you try this with your own baby”.  Take that sentiment and increase it by an order of magnitude.  I truly believe it’s one of the best parenting decisions we ever made.

Storm Warning

The last 36 hours have been filled with extremes.

In the wee hours of the morning yesterday, after many weeks of work and rework and extra work, A List Apart was launched in its new incarnation.  The community reaction was very strongly positive, with the strongest initial complaints being the lack of DNS switchover and the missing print style sheet.  There were other criticisms, of course, but nothing that I honestly didn’t expect from the outset.  Taken as a whole, the feedback was so much better than I’d hoped it would be.

Mid-afternoon that same day, I listened to voice mail from a recent client informing me that, due to a catastrophic misunderstanding, I’d be paid what they had understood the fees to be, and not what I had told them the fees would be.  This would mean the paycheck would be smaller than expected.  Like six or seven thousand dollars smaller.

(And don’t bother to tell me that I should have gotten it all in writing beforehand: I know that, okay?  Now I’ve really learned it, and double-hard.  Leave me in my misery and idiocy, and learn from my mistake.  That would at least confer some small bit of good.)

In the early evening, Carolyn picked up one of her letter-blocks and said enthusiastically “beee!” as she held it up toward me and used her other hand to sign “B”.  The block she held was a block with the letter B on it.  I put it in a group with a bunch of others and asked her to show me the B.  She did.  She did it twice more.  Then she did it for the letter E.  I was astonished, stunned, inexpressably proud.  It isn’t reading, but it’s a recognition of letter forms, and that’s where it all starts.

At Carolyn’s bed time, as I was searching for a book to read to her, I came across my copy of “Are You My Mother?”.  This is the book with which I taught myself to read.  It had gone missing three or four years ago, and I had searched through all our children’s books three times to try to find it.  My mother died thinking she’d accidentally given it away, or packed it into the wrong box during one of her spates of house cleaning.

It sat on the shelf as if it had never been anywhere else, and I was almost afraid to touch it, for fear it was an illusion.  The superstitious core of my soul wondered if Mom’s spirit had found the book and returned it to me.  A pivotal touchstone of my childhood, long absent and once mourned and inexplicably restored.  I couldn’t choose between elation, gratitude, and grief.

This morning, as I spun records on what could be the second-to-last radio show I ever do, Kat called to tell me that one of her best friends had disappeared, along with her money and passport, while on vacation.  From all indications, it is a purposeful disappearance, but not much less worrisome for being so.

Sometimes, I think it would be nice if life’s rich pageantry could tone things down just a shade or two.

Connected

Last fall, Tantek and I presented a poster at HT04.  To get it to the conference in one piece and to avoid having to lug it across the country, I created a PDF of the poster and sent it off to the Kinko’s web site.  It was printed for me by the Kinko’s closest to the conference.  All I had to do was send them a digital file, and 2,150 miles later I retrieved the physical output.

As I did so, I thought: This is really amazing.  This is what’s so great about being connected.

A few months later, Kat upgraded her car, and the new one came with XM digital radio.  We started receiving music from geosynchronous orbit, a digital signal broadcast from 22,600 miles above the equator and deciphered by the short, stubby antenna on the car’s roof.  On a drive to visit relatives, we listened to the same station for the entire four-hour drive there, and again for the return drive.

As we did so, I thought: This is incredible.  This is a great example of the benefits of connecting everything.

I was wrong in both cases.

This morning, I stood in a hotel room in Chiba, Japan and saw my wife and daughter on the television.  Back home in Cleveland, they saw me on a computer monitor.  We talked to each other, waved hello, got caught up on recent events.  I watched as Carolyn ran around my office, heard her say “mama”, and agreed with her when she signed “telephone” while she watched my image.  I stuck my tongue out to make a silly face, and six thousand miles away, my daughter laughed with delight at my antics.

A few minutes after we’d finished the chat, with the glow of home and family still warm upon me, I thought: This is why we connected everything in the first place.

Signs of Intelligence

This morning, Carolyn told me quite clearly that she wanted some yogurt for breakfast.  Technically, what she said was “more baby”, but I knew what she meant.

How did a 13-month-old manage to tell me what she wanted?  By using sign language.  Kat and I have been teaching her Baby Signs, which is a simplified version of American Sign Language.  I’m given to understand that Baby Signs figure in the plot of the recent movie Meet The Fockers, but don’t let that sour you on the idea.  The amazing thing is that it really does work, if you’re willing to put in time and effort.

At this point, we’re actually looking more to real ASL signs than we are to the Baby Signs vocabulary when teaching Carolyn new signs.  I think the real utility of Baby Signs is that it gets you started where it makes the most sense: teach your baby signs like “food”, “water”, “more”, and “all done”.  This allows the child to communicate their wants and needs long before they ever become verbal.  It works because motor skills advance more quickly than verbal skills do.  I’ll be very interested to see if Carolyn retains the signing as she grows up, or if she’s able to pick up secondary languages more easily.

Carolyn’s first sign was “hat”, which of course didn’t help at all with deducing her needs, but it was still incredible to witness.  I was actually there when she figured it out.  She was looking through a Baby Signs board book while I stood watching.  She stared very intently at a picture of a baby signing “hat”, and then put her hand to the side of her head, just like in the picture.  My jaw dropped, but I managed to keep quiet.  She did it a couple more times, then looked up at me.  That’s when I showered the praise.  It only took a day or two to teach her that the actual sign for “hat” is to pat the hand on the head, not just place it there, like she saw in the picture.  Now Carolyn signs “hat” whenever she sees a picture of one of her grandfathers, because they both wear hats all the time.

Her signing vocabulary is now about thirty words, and she’s actually devised two signs of her own—which means, unfortunately, that we have no idea what she’s trying to say when she makes them!  But we’ll figure it out eventually.

As for how “more baby” means “I want yogurt”, that’s because we quickly noticed that when Carolyn signs “more” what she really means is “I want”.  As for “baby”, the yogurt we feed her has a picture of a baby on each container.  One day she walked over to the refrigerator, patted the door, and signed “baby”.  Then she had to do it a few more times while the rest of us scratched our heads and said things like, “The refrigerator’s not a baby, sweetie.  What are you trying to say?” before finally figuring it out.

Sometimes I think she’s smarter than we are.

So if you’re a new parent or a parent-to-be, I strongly recommend that you try this with your own baby.  When a baby starts waving bye-bye, that’s when they’re ready to start learning sign language.  (We started earlier than that, hoping to lay a foundation, and may or may not have been wasting our time.)  It will help reduce frustration, and therefore tantrums, because you’ll be better able to meet their needs when they have them.  The system isn’t perfect, of course: any baby that gets too upset will be unable to communicate with anything besides tears.  It’s still a great thing when your toddler comes into the room and signs “food” long before the hunger starts making her cranky.

I wonder if the children of deaf parents, whether they themselves are deaf or not, have long benefitted (tempramentally and intellectually) from signing, and nobody outside the deaf culture bothered to notice.

On A Roll

Last night we went out for dinner with some of the other kids in Carolyn’s playgroup (and their parents) at default favorite Matsu.  Carolyn, as usual, had miso soup with extra tofu cubes and nori, some steamed sticky rice, and half a harumaki.  All very much as normal.  But then, as Kat started on her Manhattan roll with citrus tobiko, Carolyn grabbed a piece and stuffed it into her mouth.

Her first sushi—I was so proud.  We know she liked it, too, because after demolishing the first piece, she grabbed another one and ate most of the contents.

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(And did I have the camera with me?  Of course not.  One of the other daddies had a camera phone, though, so hopefully I’ll be able to update this entry with a picture.)

That Disney Magic

For Thanksgiving, we visited Kat’s parents in the West Palm Beach area, where they retired earlier this year.  When we left Cleveland on Thanksgiving morning, it was snowing—the first snowfall of the season for us.  It was clear that it would build up a dusting, and then melt within a day.  Where we were headed, it was in the seventies.  A part of me wished I could have stayed with the snow.

But off we went, and had a wonderful dinner with Kat’s parents and brother Neil.  After dinner, Uncle Neil taught Carolyn how to work the stacking-ring toy we brought along, and his efforts paid off in spades.  She’s been pulling rings off of the toy and putting them back on ever since, although she still hasn’t quite worked out that whole “largest-to-smallest” thing.  It’s pretty amazing to see how fast she went from not understanding to clumsy attempts to get it right to being an old pro.

Best of all, there was a prize embedded in the center of our trip:  we drove up to Disney World to spend the night at the Contemporary Resort and take Carolyn to the Magic Kingdom for the first time.  We had dinner at the Liberty Tree Tavern, an establishment whose name strongly and incongruously reminded me of Thomas Jefferson’s dark aphorism.  After dinner we watched the Christmas parade go past.  Well, actually, Kat and I watched it; Carolyn slept soundly through the whole thing, thus proving my assertion that when she’s fallen into a deep sleep, you can march a brass band past her at full volume and not wake her up.  The parade marched two of them past her.  Snores galore.

The next day, we had breakfast at Chef Mickey’s, rode a few rides, saw the new “Philharmagic!” show (highly recommended), and then headed back to West Palm Beach with my father and his wife, who had met us that morning.

There were two things I observed at Disney that completely astonished me.

The first was that all the children, the same media-savvy world-weary jaded children we keep hearing about in the media, totally buy into the ‘magic’ of Disney.  They relate to the costumed cast members as if they were the real thing; when “Mickey” comes by the table to dance a little jig and pat the kids on the head, they don’t see quote marks.  It really is Mickey, as far as they’re concerned, and even if they know on some level that there’s someone inside a costume, they gladly ignore that knowledge and go along for the ride.

The second thing was that Carolyn, against all my expectations, totally got that the costumed characters were in some way special.  I expected her, even at nearly a year old, to regard the characters as slightly strange people, and not significantly more interesting than anyone else.  Not so.  At first, she was a little hesitant, but with each new character she got more and more excited about them.  You can see in the pictures just how comfortable she became: she’d only learned to give kisses the week before, and by the end of dinner gave Chip (or Dale) a kiss.

At breakfast the second day, she spotted Chef Goofy standing alone near the entrance to the restaurant.  She immediately let go of my hand and toddled toward him.  He sat down, and she went right into his arms for a big hug, then sat down next to him and looked up into his face.  As I took pictures, I heard several people behind me saying things to the effect of it being darned near the most adorable thing they’d ever seen.  A woman sidled up next to me and said she hoped I’d gotten it all on video.  I hadn’t, but that’s okay.  The pictures I did take tell the story well enough.

I don’t know what it is about Disney; maybe they put something in the water.  But it really does create a kind of magic.

All too soon, it was time to head back home.  Like any good parent, we want our child to be as safe as possible, so I was greatly heartened to see her taking the time to look over the important safety information printed on the card found in the seat pocket in front of her.

Carolyn, strapped into her seat on the plane, solemnly looks over the airline safety information card.

Look Who’s Walking Now

This past Tuesday, and by that I mean three days ago, Carolyn stood unsupported for the first time, wobbling in place for five seconds.  She stood on her own a few more times Wednesday and Thursday, gaining a little more experience and confidence each time.

This morning, she started walking.  They’re tentative, almost spastic steps, but she can get from one person to another without any support at all.  Her facial expression as she does so is a bizarre mixture of pure concentration and pure joy–almost as if she knows this is really, really hard, and yet loves to do it so much that she can barely breathe.

Remember, this is the little girl who didn’t even start crawling until about six weeks ago.  Now she’s walking, and she’s started crawling up the stairs to boot.  I can hardly believe it.  It’s almost like she was uninterested in mobility until she twigged onto the fact that she could actually move from place to place on her own… and once she figured that out, well, Katy bar the door.

And honestly, I’m not sure who’s more excited, her or us.  Yeah, I know, she’s walking now and that means our lives will never be the same, we’ll wonder why we were ever excited about this, blah blah parental scare stories blah.  You know what?  I will never wonder why I was excited about this.  As she’s moved through every stage, I’ve cherished and enjoyed where she was on each day, and how she’d changed from the past.  Kat has as well.  I think we’ll be free of the wistful regrets that so many other parents have talked about, saying things like, “Oh, I just couldn’t wait for little Joey to start talking, but now he just won’t stop with the chattering and I wonder why I ever wanted him to change!”  No matter how jovial the tone or wry the expression, there always seems to be an undercurrent of seriousness, as if they really do wish that little Joey would just shut up… or, at the least, that they’d fully appreciated the pre-talking stage.

I don’t know that we’ll ever understand that view, and I can’t say that bothers me.  Every time Carolyn makes a developmental advance, it’s a new and fascinating time.  But more immediately, every single day is exciting and wonderful, as we watch her figure out this thing or that; just share playtime with her; or take her for a walk in the yard to touch the trees’ bark, pull up tiny handfuls of the grass, and tilt back to look at the sky with storm-gray eyes full of awe.

Now she walks.  Soon, she’ll start signing to us.  A few months from now, she’ll begin to really talk; she’s already starting to assemble the rudiments of language, imitating things we say as best she can.  One day, she’ll go to kindergarten, and later to grade school.  In the farther future, she’ll become a teenager, and then a woman.  At every turning point, we’ll celebrate who she is and what she’s doing, and never regret the times that have passed into memory.

Keep walking, little one.  We’re right behind you.

Baby Proof

September was quite an eventful month around these parts.  Guess who learned to crawl, started pulling herself to a standing position, began “cruising” (hesitantly walking while holding on to a couch, table, or other object), moved up to a bigger car seat, figured out how to drink from a sippy cup as well as she already could through a straw, and acquired full object permanence within that thirty days?

And those are just the developmental changes we’re sure happened.  We’re very tired now, thank you.

In the process of installing baby gates all over the house, I discovered that I’m becoming vaguely handy.  It’s a little weird.  Practice does get one closer to perfection, and Ged knows I’ve a very long way to go before I even begin to approach the contemplation of perfection in being handy, but I’m now to the point of seriously thinking about building my own workspace furniture, sort of like Dan did a while back.

Most of my practice was obtained by trying to baby-proof our kitchen.  This is no easy task anyway, but the, er, “interesting” choices made by the house’s previous owner made it about a zillion times more difficult.  Because of the way the drawers and cabinets are faced, it’s almost impossible to secure about half of them.  Of the half that could be secured, two-thirds of them were a royal pain.

Of course, sometimes the difficulty wasn’t with the materials.  I had a friend over to help me with the kitchen proofing, and we spent a lot of time complaining about the idiots who had put together the kitchen.  We had just pulled out a drawer to install a lock.  He selected a thin bit to drill a guide hole, and then started.  The drill bit didn’t even penetrate the facing.  He pressed harder, and still nothing.  Harder, and I realized the drill bit was actually starting to bend.  It wasn’t getting anywhere.  We were kind of impressed, as the facing didn’t look that tough.

No matter; he switch to a sturdier bit and started again.  That one made no better progress than the first one, and as he bore down, we both saw a wisp of smoke curl out of the drill site.  When the drill was lifted away, there was simply a small dimple in the facing.  Now we were seriously impressed, and more than a little confused.  What the heck was this facing made of, anyway?

Just as I started rooting around in the toolbox for a hammer and chisel, he suddenly exclaimed, “Oh, I am such a dumbass.”

It was suddenly very, very clear what had happened.  I couldn’t help it.  I started laughing, as did he.

He clicked over a lever on the drill, put the bit back in place, and hit the drill trigger.  It tore straight in.  I almost fell on the floor, I was laughing so hard.  I couldn’t speak, could barely breathe.

“Well, go figure!” he said in a self-mocking tone.  “I guess it works better when you have the drill actually going forward instead of in reverse!  Wow!  Who’d have thought?”

Indeed so.  Lesson learned.


Since there were requests for pictures of the little one in action, here you go: one crawling, one standing, and a bonus “on the swings” picture.  No, I don’t need help adjusting the brightness on these, but thanks.

Three pictures: one of her crawling away from the camera, one of her standing against a table, and one of her on a playground swing.
August 2014
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