Knowledge and fun spice up motherhood
My son is so verbal that … No, wait, it’s not one of those jokes. I wish I were that funny … I'm kind of complaining here. My 5-year-old son is so verbal that when he doesn’t speak, he sings. And when he doesn’t speak or sing, he utters half-melodious strings of gibberish talk. With an accent, a different one for any of his improvs.
Speaking of verbal energy, it's only fair to say that he takes after me. Me and my frisky genes, which make us both exuberant talkers, singers, rhymers and punners.
But looking at the bright side, he has great verbal skills. Plus solid logic and quick reasoning.
I know that there are gazillions of good articles on child development, so I’m not launching into a systematic review of tips or strategies. I’ll just share the way I've handled frustrations and some of my out-of-the-box communication experiences with my little one. First-hand.
Knowledge builds self-confidence
For me, motherhood was totally unexpected. When my son was born, I was 41 and self-employed for most of my professional life. Free to make changes, read and think, expand my hobbies, travel, explore and have fun.
The lifestyle shock was massive, so I have instinctively approached parenting as an opportunity for once-in-a-lifetime discoveries. I'm the kind of person who feeds on logic and details, but I'm also sensitive, and therefore more spontaneous and vulnerable than you would expect.
It's true that logic and sensitivity do vigorously clash now and then, but most of the time they are good buddies and bring intense joy and excitement into my life. Using them for my son's advantage means being a thorough strategist in the backstage and an empathic companion in the frontstage of the parenting arena.
Do you remember how we couldn't wait to see - or hear, to be precise - our little one finally talk? That incredible feeling of cheerful anticipation of his or her very first words uttered in the cutest possible way? That other incredible feeling, of hope that, once our baby is able to talk, we will understand each other so much better and being a mother will be such a fun ride? Ha-ha. The fun is always there, but the ride is never a smooth one. Once we land into the verbal era, we need to buckle up and be ready for countless verbal disputes and tons and tons of noes. Yelled or muttered noes, often reinforced by very annoying behavior. But that's another story.
The idea is that in dealing with children, the acquisition of language is not a guarantee of easier communication, in the same way the absence of language is not an obstacle for in-depth communication.
As I was saying, I tried to see everything as an opportunity for new challenges. I have a sort of physical and intellectual restlessness that needs to be consumed properly. I wanted with all my heart to dedicate myself full-time to raising my son - which I did, until he was 3 - but at the same time I was afraid of falling victim to routine and self-annulment.
In the rare silence of sleepless nights, my logic and my sensitivity got activated within the new coordinates, in dozens of extraordinary meetings. They concluded that, for me, the best way to deal with frustrations was to embark on a two-fold adventure able to satisfy them both: knowledge and emotions combined, or science and fun in one package.
The knowledge came from reading. I used every ten-minute break I had to find quality articles and studies on arborescent topics, from sleep and nutrition to cognitive development. I will digress a little here, but I feel that 'quality' needs some clarification. The writing market is so crowded, that it can put you on the wrong tracks if you don't know where to look.
I think the key is to never take anything for granted, at least not before reading about the same topic from three different qualified sources - such as pediatricians, nutritionists, psychologists and so on. Once you put together your qualified and accurate points of reference, find the common denominator and, in the end, follow your instincts to make a decision.
Speaking of instincts, let them always be your guide. Reading about motherhood stuff is not a must, in my opinion. Unless you enjoy it and feel that it genuinely empowers you as a mother.
I do it because I can't define myself without reading. I have so many questions about so many things around and within me, that I have to think and read and write about them all. Once a stimulus triggered a question, that particular question lingers like a pending job in my mind and I prefer to complete it, rather than cancel it. It's a form of mental adrenaline that brightens up my thoughts and my moods.
Everybody says that nutrition is essential for the child, and it's true, but I wanted to know how exactly it influences brain development, for instance. Since early pregnancy I wanted details, I wanted cause and effect chains, and this is how neuroscience studies brought light and excitement into my motherly uncertainties. I found out that the brain starts to develop in the first few weeks after conception and reaches about 80% of its volume in the first 3 years of life.
Genes play a substantial part in the shaping and performance of the brain, but so does nutrition, along with the influences of the family and social environment. When having to make a choice between reduced-fat milk or whole milk for your weaned baby, keep in mind that whole milk is the best choice, for the body and for the mind as well. Whole milk fat positively influences myelin, the nerve-insulating substance of the brain's wiring, and a healthier 'infrastructure' allows better performance.
Self-confidence comes with relaxation
Once you feel knowledgeable, you start loosening up. It doesn't really matter how your knowledge is acquired - by reading, thinking, guessing, sharing and comparing - the important thing is that you don't feel like an amateur anymore.
With each little victory, there's no need to double-check your spontaneous actions and solutions. You anticipate, process and solve things faster and better. You do what your instinct tells you to do and it works like a charm. Your little one is actually eating a whole banana without any help and your mother-in-law rewards you with a heartfelt "good job"! You are definitely ready to play in the professional parenting league.
Relaxation boosts creativity and fun
I have to admit that before being a mother I had no idea of the incredible cognitive potential of babies and toddlers. I thought that there are no remarkable intellectual acquisitions in the first 4-5 years of life, except for the basics of language and psychomotor functions. I was aware that parenting must be very, very hard, but I assumed that it was mostly about love and nurture, rather than smart and meaningful interaction.
On the other hand, I'm a keen observer, by nature, so I couldn't help noticing a whole variety of behavioral patterns, from the very first weeks spent with my son. If you really pay attention, your baby communicates intensely by gestures, facial expressions and sounds. Even the order and the frequency of certain signals, let's say, are much more relevant than they appear at first sight. Sometimes these patterns are quite easy to decipher, but sometimes you feel lost without googling or asking a 'senior'.
I combined hard work with curiosity and enthusiasm, and after about a half-year of amateurish mothering I reached that state of self-confidence and relaxation I was talking about earlier. I'm playful by nature, so having a baby gave me the perfect excuse to let my childish side get loose :).
I remember my first memorable communication experience with my six-month-old son. It was obvious by then that he was a very active child and that he really enjoyed family company. So why not make the best of it, I thought, and try to turn each day into a wonderful day for him? I've felt not only extremely happy, but also honored to have the chance to be part of the whole miracle of growth and blooming of this brand-new little human being, who is looking at me with eyes that look a lot like mine. It feels amazing, even surreal at times.
As I said, he's always been very active when interacting with people. You know those signs of excitement that babies show in such explicit ways: sparkling eyes, radiant smile, energetic movements and sounds. I used to talk and sing a lot to him and he really loved it. That first connection I'm talking about started about a month before Christmas, when I improvised a few baby songs. I wanted to please him, obviously, but I also wanted to break my routine by coming up with a cognitive experiment.
He had 3 favorite little toys, which became even more interesting to him once I found some names for them. Short, simple names, with different combinations of sounds, to make them as distinctive as possible: Hippo, Ozzy, Traffy. I haven't raised my son as a bilingual. I speak to him in Romanian, our mother tongue, and teach him a few English words or phrases now and then, usually to satisfy his curiosity. I'm using English names in this passage only to help it make sense. Traffy is actually the rough equivalent of the Romanian name of a little plastic toy shaped as traffic lights. As Christmas was approaching, Traffy's song was something like this:
Oh, Traffy light,
Oh, Traffy light,
You shine so bright tonight. :)
I introduced the new little songs one by one, in 3 different days. I took the star of the day in my hand and played with it in the typical jumping-flying childish style, while singing the name theme and interacting with him for about 20-30 minutes. His reaction was beyond expectations. Utter enthusiasm and great span of attention! He totally got the hang of this new ritual-game and we played it, with all the three toys together, for about one week.
It was obvious from day one that he could easily make the difference between the 'characters', which were placed at a certain distance from one another on the carpet, never in the same positions. When he heard me singing, he instantly looked at the right toy. My goal was to combine mental associations with multiple-sensory learning, and I managed to make him understand that crawling could be an even funnier way to show me that he mastered the game. So when I started singing a name theme, he would crawl excitedly towards the toy :).
He discovered crawling quite early, when he was about 4 months old. He started with what I call 'frog style' and two months later he acquired the 'professional' style moves. He was too young to point at objects, but crawling towards them was a perfect substitute. I'll never forget the sparkling eyes of my little one while making a full demonstration for me, by recognizing all the toys by their theme songs. It was a distinctive mixture of exuberance and pride, which gave him a certain dignity and self-confidence, in spite of the overall chaotic, misbalanced body language.
In that particular moment, I felt guilty and ashamed of my ignorance about the extraordinary cognitive and emotional potential of all the babies in the world.
Multi-sensory interaction is magic
That was the moment when the communication with my son started to bloom. I put myself in his (little) shoes and I realized that babies need to compensate the impossibility of expressing themselves verbally with the intensive use of all senses. Touching, tasting, smelling and hearing are powerful tools of exploration and deciphering of the surrounding environment.
I was aware of that and I reinforced my guesses with in-depth reading about the stages of cognitive development, as explained by Jean Piaget starting with the 1950s and approached by numerous scholars ever since. From birth until 18-24 months, babies go through the sensorimotor phase, in which learning involves experiences through senses and trial-and-error processes.
There are so many games and activities that I invented for my baby boy, or rather with my baby boy, since most of the time I started from his urges and needs. Every time he pointed with his finger to something, I would not only tell him the name of the object, but also cheerfully give him brief descriptions or make analogies with similar things or concepts.
It was obvious that he enjoyed details, because when he wasn't satisfied with the answer, he kept pointing with his finger and making a distinctive short groaning sound. We all know that such sounds can be so annoying for an exhausted parent, but most of the time we misinterpret them as being pure naughtiness or defiance. When looking back, I realize that this particular groaning was a pre-verbal persistent "whyyyy?".
I started to have a growing interest in the behavior of babies and toddlers, especially in terms of different ways of acquiring cognition and molding their personality. I couldn't help observing other children in the park and processing their reactions.
I remember how a little boy, who was about 1 year and a half old, kept pointing up and making groaning sounds. His father was really patient, trying hard to find the answer the little one was looking for. "That's a tree ... leaves ... many leaves ... walnut ...". Nothing seemed to please the child until the father's face lightened up while saying out loud "Oh, the plane!". It was only then that I could hear the remote sound that must have puzzled the boy. The man took his son by the hand and they made a few steps away from the walnut to see the white trace of the plane in the cloudless sky.
The sparkling eyes of the little boy made my day. I admired him for the constructive restlessness of his young mind and I admired his father for his patience and intuition. This is what I call a perfect parent-child connection and also a perfect example of the enriching potential of the pre-verbal period.
Children can develop hobbies earlier than we can imagine, unless we miss their signs of interest. My son is born in May, which is a splendid time of the year, so after the 1-year vaccination, as a crucial step in immunity building, I gave him complete freedom in outdoor exploration. After stopping three times in a row in front of the same car in the parking lot near our apartment building, I realized that he wanted more than me repeating the word 'car', with a brief definition and color indication. He was actually making that repeated short groaning sound while poking the car emblem with his finger.
Eureka! "That's a Dacia emblem, my little bunny." He stopped touching the emblem and was all ears, with an adorable expression of eagerness and joy on his face. "Yes, a Dacia. That's her name. Just like yours is V. Let me introduce you to her." I improvised a little theatrical monologue, and for about 3-4 days he would spot all the parked Dacias we passed by during our long walks. He wanted more every time, so I also told him that Dacia is a Romanian brand and its logo looks like a coat of arms.
When he 'mastered' the Dacias, he did the same with other car emblems, allotting a few exclusive days to each of them. In about 2 months he was able to recognize the most popular (in Romania) car logos: Dacia, Renault, Volkswagen, Audi, Daewoo, Peugeot, Citroën. He loved being asked to spot them, not only by their names, but also by the corresponding one-word association that I included in my descriptions: "Can you show me a lion emblem? What about a rhombus one?" and so on. His brain was ready for complex associations and enjoyed it copiously. One year later, when he was able to make short sentences, much of the detailed knowledge acquired in the pre-verbal period was revealed, to my joy and pride.
Verbal communication opens new horizons
Making logic associations is a great way to consume the mental energy of very active children, but it's not enough to manage to make them go to sleep before midnight. Luckily, we love spending time outdoors, in all seasons, even after or during soft rain - with proper gear, of course :).
We got our hands dirty many times to discover the laws of physics for newbies. By trial and error, my little boy discovered that half a nut floats, while a pebble sinks, along with many other mysteries of nature. When we were all alone at the playground, he experimented to see which little object thrown on the slide lands the farthest: a plastic bottle cap, a paper wad, a nut or half a nut, for instance. He is very curious by nature and asks avalanches of questions, so I cheerfully assisted him in discovering the relations between the speed, shape and weight of the objects and their position in the 'landing area'.
The most recent improv - and the last one in this article - is the Omega game, which started from a commercial. My son wanted to know what Omega 3 was and I explained to him that it is a nutritive substance, very useful for our body and mind. Just like the vitamins - A, B, C, D and so on. "But why omega?" he insisted. "Omega is not a letter." "Yes, it is", I answered with a smile. "A Greek one." 'Hmm, that's strange. This letter is so long", he continued. "How can Greeks say the words with omega? It's very difficult, isn't it?"
I was more and more amused by this unexpected conversation. I explained to him that we pronounce it in this long form only as a letter of the alphabet, but within a word, it's pronounced as a simple 'o'. I gave him a few examples containing one or two letters 'o': 'd-omega-g' means 'dog', 'c-r-omega-c-omega-d-i-l-e' means 'crocodile'. My examples were actually in Romanian, so it was easier to decipher the words. Romanian is a phonetic language, which means that what you hear is what you get. "I love it, mom. Ask me words with Omega". And so we've been playing Omega almost every day, in the past week, and I started to add some 'alpha' and 'beta' for extra fun in the same word, by request :).
What you give is what you get
I know that every parent has inevitable moments of extreme frustration and exhaustion. We sometimes feel completely clueless and it seems unfair that we give so much to our children and get so little in return. But at the end of the day, when their loving little arms give us the good night hug, we are flooded with gratitude and joy. If we think reasonably, we realize that all our behavior as parents has a sort of boomerang effect. Most of the time, it's our lack of consistence, tact or warmth that triggers a tantrum or an overall bad, tiring day with our little ones.
But remember that knowledge builds self-confidence, self-confidence comes with relaxation and relaxation boosts creativity and fun. This applies not only to mothers or fathers, but to our children as well. If we can shape our lives by this positive chain of reactions and moods, so can they. Because they take after us, by nature and nurture, and everything is so much fairer than it seems.
From this angle, the fact that my son, like many other children, is so very loud and verbal has only bright sides. He's loud and verbal because he's knowledgeable, self-confident and relaxed. And to cover the creative and fun part, here is how he kisses me good night: "I love you mega turbo ultra super very much, mom".