Talking with my Toddler: Experiments in Generalization


The emergence of speech has begun. Important words are clearly intelligible now for our almost seventeen month old child. Words like: cheese, steak, pasta, pizza and (the first truly effective combination of two words together) “Up please!” We taught this to him patiently as he asks so frequently to be picked up while we are in the kitchen cooking. He wants to see what’s on the stove, watch the hot coffee being made, the dishes being done. The intense “ahh ahh ahh” and pulling on the leg has been effectively replaced with “Up Please,” and then a gesture towards the cabinet with a very clearly stated “cracker!”

It’s truly satisfying to observe my son feeling effective and understood in so many small moments in his life. The special education teacher and developmental specialist within never strays far from my mind making most of my observations of my own child curious ones… and then relieved ones. I know that language is often slower to develop in boys. I know that speech and language delays have been common in my both my family and in my husbands… watching, waiting, listening. “Up please,” B says now when he wants to read a book, go outside, have more snack. He has begun to generalize this phrase that gets him picked up when he wants it to other situations and meanings. It must work for everything right?

In conjunction with “up please” the persistent whine has increased, tripled, expanded so quickly and to so many situations that I found myself yesterday responding with “No, stop, say this instead” every few seconds. Perplexing isn’t it that with the rapid increase in vocabulary comes a rapid increase in whining for things desired. I found myself feeling like the worn out, tired parent I so often used to console in my classroom, my sons voice like the sound of a mosquito I can’t find buzzing in my ear. These interactions reminded me to think about communication, whole communication.

Beginning in infancy the job of the parent is to discern the meaning of a baby’s cry, to be consistent and responsive to the infant’s cues and rudimentary signals for closeness, food, a new diaper. These actions are basic functions of parenting that we end up doing in our sleep and yet these caregiving exchanges become the childs first experience of language, shared meaning, of reciprocity. And that’s what communication is isn’t it? A reciprocal exchange of thoughts, ideas, needs. Telling my son “No, stop, and say this instead” in response to his whines limits the interaction, misses the point, I am not reading his cues and helping him to find the words he is so desperately searching for. That’s what he wants, more words and not knowing the precise word or combination of words needed in a given moment causes him to feel urgent, frustrated and he resorts to the dreaded “whine” to get his point across.

Today however, is a new day, a new opportunity to change the course of the dialog, another moment to return to the beginning as when he was an infant. If there’s anything I am good at after years and years of working with infants and toddlers, it’s reading cues, figuring out what the tiny person in front me is attempting to express. Today thus far I have heard just as many demanding, urgent and frustrated whines as yesterday, the difference is that instead of responding in kind with frustration and impatience I am stopping, observing and listening to what my tiny human is trying to say to me. “Is there something you want to tell me?” “YEAH!” “Would you like me to get you more yoghurt?” “YEAH!” His enthusiasm at being understand is both affirming to him, and to me when I get it right. Onward, we go, in this ever changing, engaging, and ultimately self regulating (but that’s a topic for another post) dialogue between mother and quickly growing toddler. More coffee anyone?

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