Faith, Life, Motherhood

Sacred Space

Sacred space by barnyz on flickr

Mow the lawn.  Pay the bills. Feed the dog.  Change the oil.  Check the homework.  Supervise the music practice.  Tame the toddler.  Ferry kids from place to place; take a meal to a needy neighbour; make a plan for the next school holidays; fold the laundry before ‘Mount Washmore’ erupts…

Life is busy.

We’re one month into 2016 and already the pace has picked up.  Here in New Zealand we’re launching ourselves into the merry-go-round of a new school year.  Already the spaces in the calendar are starting to darken with activities; our schedule’s filling up.  We have to think ahead and squeeze the things we want to do into the available time each week.  But while all that’s happening, I’m trying to create space for what’s important.

How do we do that?

How do we create space for what’s important when life crowds in so insistently?

In a cold stone kitchen in England, a pot of stew bubbles above the fire, sending savoury-scented steam up into the rafters.  A small child crouches by the hearth, dandling a cloth doll on her knee as she chirps out a lullaby; her next-older brother tosses wooden pegs into a tin bucket – it clangs and rings out as the pegs find their mark.  Six older siblings sit at the worn dining table, books open, chanting their lessons.  A cradle in the corner sits empty; another baby gone to heaven.  Susanna stirs the dinner as she calls out corrections to the children’s Latin recitation. 

As she removes the pot to the windowsill to cool, Susanna reminds Hetty that it’s her turn for Mama time this evening; she’ll test her daughter on her memorised scriptures and they’ll spend time talking away from the others.  And then, in the midst of the younger children’s clamour for their meal and the older children’s scholarly disagreement, Susanna throws her apron over her head. In this strange but sacred space, she begins to pray.

Susanna Wesley (mother of Charles and John) knew a little something about busyness.  She also knew a bit about creating space for what’s important.  She bore 19 children and raised about half of them (the others sadly died in infancy), schooling them in the Christian faith, teaching them the classics, and nurturing them into rich and productive lives.

Susanna served her family wholeheartedly and mindfully; but she also recognized the importance of maintaining her own spiritual walk.  Life, death, grief, separation, struggle, work – all competed for attention in Susanna’s life.  But her children all noticed how she found a way to make space for holiness in the midst of the mundane – how she spent time with God even while remaining physically present with them.

We all need to take time regularly to ensure that our hearts and minds are aligned with God’s will for our lives; and the trick is that we need to figure out how to do that while we’re in the midst of living those lives.

I’m still figuring that out.  I keep falling short and losing my balance in the busyness.  I’ve got a few little ideas of how I’d like to create sacred space this year, though, and now seems as good a time as any to make a start:

  • Short Bible reading/devotional/prayer to start the day, before I even get out of bed (praises due to West, who does breakfast for the boys) – to create space for this I’m going to need to be disciplined about getting lunches made the night before, and possibly setting the alarm for an earlier wake-up (eek!)
  • Praying instead of yelling – Yep, I still get caught in that awful habit of raising my voice when I’m at my wit’s end, but I’m determined to focus that energy on something that will bring change instead of negativity; I’ll create space in frustration for a clear-headed and calm response to challenges
  • Loving notes for the boys – in the midst of the task of raising these precious children, I need to create space to just breathe life into them. I’ve started a love project – each of the boys has a ‘Things I Love about You’ poster, and from now until Valentine’s Day I’m putting a heart on with a word or phrase of something I love about them (so far they love it!).  From there I’ll need to find a new way of affirming their unique places in my heart – but the goal is to ensure that each day I take time to build them up, instead of simply being caught up in getting them to do their chores and homework and improving their behaviour…
  • Worship/meditation music on in the house – it’s amazing how certain music creates space for peaceful interactions and a calmer approach to life

How about you?  How do you create space for what’s important in your life?  Does it happen easily or do you have to be intentional about it, as I do?  I pray that we’d all find ways to create space in our lives for peace and time with God in the year ahead.


Thanks for reading!


Faith, Motherhood, Parenting

Best of All

Best of All

Someone in this world loves me ‘Best of All’.

We were cuddled up together this morning as he gave me kisses and kisses and nose-nuzzles and squeezes and whispered sweet nothings to me – things like, “I love you SO much!”, and, “You’re the bestest Mama in the WHOLE WORLD!” (we can thank Doc McStuffins for that one…).  And I just drank in his adoration and revelled in the extra love I was getting to make up for the good-night cuddles I missed when I was out for dinner with his Daddy last night.

All my boys, as toddlers, have gone through a phase of being particularly attached to (and loving towards) their Mama.  All of them lavished me with unsolicited cuddles, and all of them were reluctant to leave my side when they had to be separated from me – and they were quick to return to my arms when we were reunited.

My first son had to be prised from first my legs and then the good-bye gate on his first morning at preschool – he was all clinging arms and legs, like some sort of reluctant octopus

My second son asked his preschool teachers, “When’s Mummy coming?” so many times that they eventually struck up a deal with him that he could only inquire about my e.t.a. three times in a morning.

My third son was happy enough with preschool, but he needed me to stay with him in the church nursery for ages, and even after he got used to it he’d make up for lost time with extra hugs and kisses when I picked him up.  At home, he’d follow me around like a little curly-headed shadow.

And now this little one is going through that stage where his world – and his devotion – centres on Mama.

Right now, he loves me best of all.  But it won’t last.

This adoration – this devotion – is a natural phase.  Some would say it’s a biological imperative – that, while children mature beyond the absolute necessity of our care in infancy, they demonstrate this heart-warming attachment to their parents to stir in us a protective response.  But I think it’s more than that – I feel that it’s also a response to a nurtured bond between a mother (or other primary caregiver) and her child.

Nevertheless – whether nature, nurture, or some combination of the two – it is temporary.

I will hopefully always be beloved by my sons; I certainly know that they will always be beloved by me.  But this stage of my being the very centre of their universe does not last, and nor is it meant to.

Their world – and their hearts – open up as they grow.  They realize that there’s room for loving and being attached to other people.  And mothers lose their singular place in the lives of their children.

As our kids grow into more independent beings – as they stretch their wings and take fledgling hops towards solo flight – they need us to provide for them a place where they know that they are loved best of all.  Because, while young children take it for granted that everyone around them utterly adores them, older children understand that there are some limits to how adorable they are (and to whom they are adorable) and therefore need the assurance that home is still a safe and loving place.  In the midst of peer pressure, negative experiences and the challenge of discerning between competing influences, older kids need to know that home is where they’re loved best of all.

It’s really easy to get into a habit of nitpicking, criticizing, or arguing with kids as they push away in establishing their independence.  But whatever we do, we need to be conscious of the fact that our actions will affect how safe and loving our kids perceive our home to be.  (And oh, man – I don’t know about you, but that feels like a LOT of pressure to me!)

Fortunately for me, as a Christian I am able to give my kids some added assurance.  Not only is home where they’re loved best of all; not only are we (their parents and family) the ones who love them best of all – there is Another who loves them best of all, too.

The Lord your God is with you;
his power gives you victory.
The Lord will take delight in you,
and in his love he will give you new life.
He will sing and be joyful over you.

-Zephaniah 3:17

God loves our kids unreservedly.  God loves our kids eternally.  God loves our kids personally.

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

                                                                                  -Romans 8:37-39

God loves our kids ‘best of all’.

And they’re not the only ones, either.  He loves us just the same.  Best of all.

No matter who we are or what we’ve done, no matter where we are in our faith – even regardless of whether or not we love him back – there will always be someone who loves each one of us ‘best of all’.  And as He’s the One who was there before time began, we can be confident that it’s not just a passing phase.

Please don’t forget that.  Please don’t dismiss it or make excuses for why it can’t be true.  Just know it.

God loves YOU best of all.

Motherhood, Parenting, Personal Growth, Relationships

How to Be an Emotional Adult

Angry kitten by zhouxuan12345678 on flickr

Last week I wrote about helping kids to navigate the often murky waters of their own feelings.  This is an important investment of our time as parents, to be sure – but kids aren’t the only ones who need to increase their emotional intelligence.  Some grown-ups still have a lot of growing-up to do when it comes to identifying, handling, and expressing emotion, too.

We adults – just like our kids – can be pretty clueless about how we’re feeling in some situations.  Why, otherwise, would we pull a kid back to prevent him from stepping off a curb into traffic and express our relief at having saved them by yelling at them?!  You know, the old “You could have died!  I’m gonna wring your neck!” speech… * We don’t choose carefully measured words because we are a jumble of nerves and emotions at that moment that we’ve saved a child from the precipice.  We can’t reasonably process all that we’re feeling – and so we express ourselves poorly.

*[Disclaimer here: it is a normal reaction to speak in violent hyperbole when rescuing children from certain death – this does not mean that we follow through with actual physical violence.]

We adults aren’t just clueless about how we’re feeling.  As the above example demonstrates, we’re not always in control of our emotions, either.  We don’t always express our anxiety, anger, or sadness appropriately.  But letting our kids see that we’re working on being better at those things can help them to realize that it’s important for them to make the same effort.  And yes, if we find that we’re consistently ‘venting’ in ways that aren’t healthy for our families or making excuses for yelling, ranting, and raging, then it’s time to get help.

I find it useful to give my family a ‘heads-up’ when I’m feeling particularly stressed or hormonal – not so that I have an excuse for losing my temper, but so that they can understand if I’m not as patient as I’d like to be.  And an apology goes a long way; if we admit that we’ve behaved in a way that we’re not proud of, it puts the responsibility for our actions on our own shoulders so that our kids are less likely to take a sharp answer or impatient attitude personally.  Apologising also demonstrates an important point:

We are responsible for our own actions, even when we feel that our negative feelings might excuse the poor choices we make in expressing those emotions.

We are the adults.  We need to be committed to striving for emotional maturity (more on that later).

It’s important to realize, too, that there are cultural and family differences that influence where we set our threshold for emotional expression.

Brits (and British colonials) have generally exhibited a ‘stiff upper lip’ approach to emotion; that is, don’t let that lower lip wobble and show your vulnerability, but push your feelings to the side and get on with it.  Latin temperaments tend towards the opposite end of the spectrum; Italians and people from other Latinate backgrounds are more likely to display their feelings in a ‘fiesta’ of passions; in those societies, it’s considered braver and more honest to express emotion than to contain it.  Both of these approaches have their benefits and their costs.  When we never address how we’re feeling, we risk becoming too repressed and never making ourselves truly known (nor ever truly knowing others); when we allow ourselves unrestricted expression of emotion, we can cause rifts in our relationships when we vent our frustrations in a heated moment (because seldom do these frustrations typify our feelings about the other person/people the rest of the time – they’re a flash in the pan).

Whether your family growing up embodied the ‘fight hard, love hard’ approach to life, or whether they exhibited a ‘tortoise’ mentality (duck down and wait ‘til it’s over – hide in your shell from those uncomfortable feelings), it WILL have an impact on how you behave in your own relationships today.  It will also affect how you behave in your role as a parent.  But it doesn’t have to be just a matter of walking in your parents’ shoes – you can make deliberate choices to achieve what you feel is a healthy balance (bearing in mind that you don’t want to be extremely to one side or the other of this spectrum).

So, what does emotional maturity look like?  Well, to me it looks something like this:

  • Acknowledging emotions – Accepting that you are an emotional being, and that feelings lend both colour and meaning to your existence.
  • Correctly identifying emotions – “Am I scared? Anxious?  Frustrated? Lonely?”
  • Tracing the source of your feelings – “This feels like anger, but what am I really upset about? Do I feel ignored?  Am I just hungry or tired and so my patience has petered out?”
  • Avoiding blame You’re responsible for your own reactions, and you shouldn’t allow the actions of others to control how you feel.
  • Expressing your emotions in a helpful, considerate, and honest manner – not ‘venting’ or allowing your emotions to control your behaviour to an unhealthy degree.

One of the signs of true emotional maturity in a parent is not mirroring your kids’ craziness back to them.  If your kid’s angry, then he’s angry – it doesn’t mean you have to be, too.  When your preschooler is losing it at the gate into school, you don’t have to burst into tears along with her (even though your heart is breaking) – because you know that you have to hold it together for her sake.

And please don’t think I’m holding myself up as any sort of epitome of emotional maturity here – I am SUCH a work-in-progress on this.  I’m not there yet – but I know where the goal posts are, and I am ever striving towards them.

Our kids need good role models who understand emotion and deal with their feelings in a healthy way.  Parents, let’s work towards demonstrating emotional maturity as we deal with our kids and the other people in our lives who make us crazy!  

Life, Motherhood, Parenting

It’s All in the Delivery…


I wrote the book on having babies.  Or, actually, that should read ‘I wrote *a* book on having babies’.  Or maybe, more accurately, ‘I wrote a booklet or small pamphlet on having babies’.  And I did that before I even had any babies.

I was desperately, acutely, overwhelmingly clucky during my first few years of marriage.  West and I had decided to wait before trying for a baby, because we both believed in having a time ‘cocooned’ together; a time when we could focus on each other, on ourselves as a couple, and knit our hearts and souls more closely together before we embarked on the journey of parenthood.  So I had very good reasons for not leaping into motherhood – but nevertheless I felt a great yearning for this future that we hoped for and prayed for even as we enjoyed our child-free time together.

When we took off for a sojourn in Europe, we were a year out from ttc (‘trying to conceive’ – keep up!) and my cluckiness amped up, big time.  The museums, cathedrals, and the other historic sights were all just an attractive backdrop for the belli bambini and kid stuff; everywhere I went I saw sweet little Scandinavians, itty-bitty Italiani, pretty Portuguese babies…  San Sebastian was memorable for the vintage seaside carousel; Sweden for the darling old-fashioned perambulators bouncing over the cobblestones; the Netherlands for their tykes on bikes; France and Italy for the beautiful couture baby outfits.

We lived in Florence – steps from Santa Croce, a mere amble along to Il Duomo.  West worked, and I… researched.  Baby stuff.  Getting pregnant stuff.  Giving birth stuff.  You name it, I looked it up (I looked up baby names, too, although that ended up being of little use seeing as we could never decide until the last minute – or later… ).  I wrote my conception plan.  And my birth plan.  And… well, lots of stuff, really.

So by the time we were actually ready to have a baby, I was all set.  I’d rid my system of unwanted chemicals, got myself to a healthy weight, boosted my nutrition, and noted in the calendar the ‘average’ six months we’d expect it to take for us to conceive (all going well).

And then the first month, wham, bam, thank you Sir…  I was up the duff.

Thanks to my research, I knew that ginger and small snacks would be handy weapons against morning sickness.  But oh!  Nothing could have prepared me for how wretched I’d feel.  Or for how tired.  Or for the fact that, one night after my hubby had slaved over the stove making chicken satay I’d all of a sudden just notbeabletohandlelookingatorsmellingpoultrywithoutthrowingup!  Nobody told me I’d be stricken with sudden dizzy/fainting spells and one evening have to flee the New Releases section and end up crouched in the doorway of the local video shop like some sort of overfed hobo (ohtheshame!).

I had watched episodes and episodes of ‘A Baby Story’, but nothing could have prepared me for the raw reality of the birth video we saw in antenatal classes.  My eyes watered – and grew two sizes wider than normal.  When it was over, a stunned silence enveloped the room.  Bit late for second thoughts…  I sent West to fetch me a cup of hot, sweet tea – I felt so shaky I didn’t trust my legs to hold me.

And the birth itself!  Well, first of all – what’s with this ‘due date’ malarkey??  Ten days overdue, a week of ‘false’ labour and exhausted waiting and extra checks, and eventually labour got underway solidly enough to warrant a trip to the birthing centre.  Except that then it started puttering again, and as I was anxious to avoid an induction, my midwife set me to stair-climbing.  Picture a heavily pregnant woman huffing and puffing up and down the stairwell, pausing to do deep-knee bends and crab-walking her ungainly form up the stairs sideways. Nobody ever warned me that being in labour would render me such a ridiculous sight, but I was beyond caring.

Later on – much later on – I was in established labour and far enough along in the process that I could seek relief in the hot tub.  By this time I was in the zone, and I couldn’t really articulate much but I was Oh.So.Thirsty…  West had been tenderly bathing my brow with a cold, wet washcloth.  I snatched it from him, crammed a bunch of it in my mouth, and began to suck the water out.  Relief!  West was horrified.  He was quite sure I’d taken leave of my senses, but the midwife had stepped out of the room so he couldn’t get a second opinion.  When she returned, she decided it was time to haul me out of my warm pool to check out my progress.  There had been none.

The next few hours are a bit of a blur.  There was some anxiety, a good deal of pain, and possibly some unabashed begging for an epidural and a C-section (neither of which was available or on offer, but if I were going to lose out on my natural labour I was going to go all out, darn it!).  A short visit to a rave-like-state (courtesy of gas & air, which was rudely snatched from me just when things got going), some deft manoeuvering from a veteran midwife, a short burst of open-throated yelling, and I reached down to pull my firstborn onto my chest.

No-one ever warned me that a first birth can be traumatic.  The pain, the fear, the noise, the blood – all mine.  I felt like I’d been through war.

You see pictures of other mothers holding a bundled infant in one arm and the phone in the other hand as they smile and give everyone the good news first-hand.  I made West call.  Even my parents. I couldn’t manage to speak of the horrors…  Even when my Mum-in-law came into the room the next day and congratulated me, all I could do was squeak incredulously at her, “You did that FOUR TIMES???”

Fast forward a year.  The one I had sworn (post-birth) would be my only child had celebrated his first birthday, and time had softened my memories of the labour experience.  We were now planning a second child for some time the following year, and I decided that we’d give NFP (Natural Family Planning) a go to prevent conception in the meantime.

I religiously took my temperature each morning that first month; imagine my surprise when I realized that it wasn’t going down.  NFP should stand for ‘Now Future Parents’.  I was ‘in the family way’ again – a few months earlier than planned.  What a shock!  And a delight.  But also a shock!  I never was that good at math – I guess my calculations were a little off…

This time I wasn’t sick for fourteen or fifteen weeks.  I was sick the whole pregnancy.  The books just don’t prepare you for that.

His EDD came – and went.  Oh, well – even if he were overdue like his brother, at least the labour would be shorter.  All the books promise you that the second labour will be shorter.

The labour wasn’t shorter.

I was four days overdue, and this time the baby was measuring small-for-dates, so when the labour got underway I had to head to the hospital instead of the birthing centre.  Anxious to avoid another washcloth-sucking incident, West plied me with drinks as I swayed around the delivery room.

A few more hours of this and my midwife was concerned that I was still getting dehydrated, so a nurse came in and (after a few tries) inserted an IV.  Splendid.  This made it easier, some more hours later, for some hormones to be added to the drip to augment the contractions.

Between the IV and all the drinks West was offering, toilet stops were necessary.  Not too long after the augmentation drip had begun, I waddled along to the loo and stopped just inside the door for a massive contraction.  It was a large bathroom, complete with shower and chair, and I needed to sit down – so I did a bowlegged cowboy walk over to the chair and sat down.  On something.  Every woman reads about this, and vows that she will not succumb to the humiliation of delivering a poop along with her baby.  I was mortified, and I called out to my midwife with apologies for what she might find when she checked.

Fortunately, it was not a poop – it was my baby’s head.  And I had just sat on it.

Obviously delivering a baby in the bathroom is not advantageous, and my midwife kindly tried to coax me from the room – but that IV was doing its job, and I was going to do mine.  There was no way I was moving.  My little prince made his way into the world in the throne room. Glamourous. I should have named him ‘John’.

This time I wasn’t too traumatised by the birth to call family – I was too traumatised by having my baby taken away briskly after birth.  Instead of a lusty cry he was making little bear-cub grunts; his colour wasn’t great, either, so they took him off for a stint in the incubator.  You read all about how important it is to have that bonding time right after birth, and my little one and I were separated. Nothing could have prepared me for that.  Fortunately, we were reunited fairly quickly, and B (who was our smallest pipsqueak at birth) has grown into a strong and energetic little boy – who loves to hear all about how he was born in the loo.

When B was one, we moved from New Zealand to Canada to spend some time closer to my family – and a few months later we were expecting C.   I was just as tired in my third pregnancy, but not nearly as sick as I’d been with the previous two (Hallelujah!).  I had the same EDD for my third as I’d had for my second, and this little one was more prompt; he actually arrived on his due date.

Labour – a little faster than the other times (improvement!), and by this time I knew what to expect so there were few surprises and no trauma (aside from a couple of brief debates with the charge nurse, who wanted me to get into a gown – nothanksi’llwearmyownstuff – and tried to insist that West leave my side to go and park the car properly – youaregoingNOWHERE!).  But I had another excellent midwife and it was a good birth experience all-round.  Not traumatic at all.

They don’t tell you this in the books, but you can get to the point where you’re actually more comfortable spending the first night back at home than staying in the hospital – and so that’s just what we did.

We took a sanity break between C and D.  For ages I worked hard to convince myself that C was ‘my last’, and I cherished all the little stages of his babyhood (which was obviously easier to do without a younger sibling to contend with).  I went back to school and completed an editing certificate through my old university, lost the baby weight and found a fitness regimen that worked for me, and served in my church’s marriage ministry (which I am passionate about).  But a yearning for a fourth child welled up in me and demanded that West and I address the issue.  And we did; through a lot of prayer and in faith, we found resolution to our question when we conceived number four.

It was a good pregnancy, although slightly weird being considered to be of ‘advanced maternal age’ this time (being over 35).  I didn’t struggle much with morning sickness, although some severe reflux and sciatica took their toll… It’s a very special thing growing a little human being, but I don’t want to romanticise it – sometimes, like when you’re 40 weeks pregnant in the middle of summer, it’s hard work being pregnant.

I like patterns – so when I realized that my other boys were ten days overdue, four days overdue, and born on his due date (respectively), I decided that it must mean that I was going to take even less time to bake this little bun.  And God chuckled…  Once again, I tried all the tried-and-true (and safe) home remedies to kick-start labour – but this little babe just arrived in his own sweet time.  Six days overdue.

This time I was very well set-up to labour at home.  I had my exercise ball, meditation and hypnobirthing exercises on the iPod, and a husband who’s good at minimising my drama.  So when I started feeling too uncomfortable to sleep, I went through to the living room and rocked on the ball while I breathed through the exercises, and West slumbered on.

By the time morning came (to my relief – I hadn’t slept a wink), I was ready for the kids to be packed off to the beach with my Mum and then I could find some relief in moaning through the contractions (which I had  found to be helpful in my previous labours – another handy tip picked up during my researching time in Florence).  In fact, I have a vivid memory of mooing through a strong contraction right under an open window and I fancied that I heard our Slavic lawn-care professional pause, startled, as he mowed past outside.  Slightly mortifying, but oh well.

Each time I’ve been in labour I’ve been anxious about when to call the midwife.  Even though it’s a major life event for me, I am bothered by the idea of it interrupting others’ sleep and sustenance.  So I’ve felt hesitant about calling too early (especially if it’s the middle of the night) while also not being especially keen on leaving it too late and delivering my baby in the car en route to hospital.  I’ve also been worried that, when my midwife does turn up to check me at home, she’d find that I wasn’t nearly far enough along to have called her.

This time I needn’t have worried.  I was down on all fours low-singing though a contraction when my midwife arrived, and when she checked me I was eight centimeters.  I’d been feeling a bit nauseous, so I waddled down to the car with a mixing bowl clutched in my hands just in case – and I clutched this like an amulet as I was wheeled along the hospital corridors with my eyes squeezed shut so that I could stay ‘in the zone’.  After I arrived at the delivery room I got changed into my bikini top and batik sarong (just so you know I made the full journey to granola-crunchy mama…) and not long after that it was time to push.  I was so grateful to be at this point of the labour – almost the end – that I just barely managed to stop myself from blurting out to the three other people in the room, “Oh, this is my favourite part!”  Soon after that we met our fourth little boy.  My midwife called me a ‘birthing goddess’ – I couldn’t honestly claim the divine designation, but I love it anyway!

We’re now about a month away from D’s second birthday, and there hasn’t been a moment that I have regretted our acceptance of God’s pull on my heart to add to our family.  Four is my special number.  I am so grateful for him, and it has been a joy to watch our older boys love and nurture him since the first day he came home.

Each of my boys has been a gift.  Nothing could have prepared me for the ways in which my labours would deviate from my plans, but even through the challenges they gave me a taste of the enormity and awesomeness of my job as a mother.  Parenting is a process of discovery – beginning with the pregnancy and labour (or, for others, the emotional journey of adopting a child).  There is humiliation in the process, to be sure, but there’s also hilarity.  And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Life, Motherhood, Parenting, Reflection

This Is How They Learn to Talk



Over the past few weeks, my toddler’s language has exploded.  D., who’ll be two in a couple of months, has hitherto been a dedicated babbler; but recently his gibberish has become more and more coherent; he is now making more of an effort to repeat the actual sounds of words rather than simply mimicking the rhythms and inflections of conversation.  And now that he can say more words, he’s working on combining them to create phrases.

D. has been the slowest of all my boys to produce comprehensive sentences; my other three were quick to talk – anxious, West says, to get a word in edgewise while they could!  But D. – cruisey little dude that he is – has generally been content to just babble away and use his signs to make himself understood.  His ability to reproduce complex tunes (albeit without the lyrics) is the one thing that has kept me from questioning the quality of his hearing; I figured that if he could hear and repeat tones (as he did with his pretend conversations) and if I could see the cognitive connections taking place (which I could), then there wasn’t anything that I needed to worry about.

I’ve always been very intentional about introducing my babies to speech.  From the moment they’ve arrived in the world I have bathed them in language – words of affection; words of instruction; naming words; descriptions – this has been the poetry of their babyhoods.

I begin by naming everything.  Milk, love, warm, toes, cuddle, Daddy, Mama.  As I bring them into the wider world and introduce them to more people and experiences, the vocabulary increases.  I watch for signs of recognition and build on those connections.  We play games to show how we understand one another; Peepo! (they smile and hide), Tickly-toes! (they tuck their feet up in giggly anticipation), Where are your knees?? (they clutch at them and beam with pride as I applaud their cleverness)…

We read books together – we start with word books (with simple but engaging pictures), and books with romping rhythms and rollicking rhymes that we can both enjoy.  All of them have wanted to taste the pages at first, but in time they’ve learned to be gentle and to turn at the corners and to avoid standing on the books.  They’ve each had their favourites, and I’ve had mine; and by their toddler years we both could repeat whole pages (if not the entirety) of those preferred volumes.

Repetition is key.  The words they say first are words I’ve said to them hundreds or thousands of times.  Consistency rules; only when they gain confidence with language do they begin to attempt words that are new to them.  And then they become veritable parrots (much to the delight of their older brothers, who love to get them to say silly sentences), mimicking every phrase thrown at them.  But at the beginning, it’s usually the oft-repeated words that they attempt in their sweet baby voices.

As my babies grow, their language grows too.  When they say, “I go’d,” I repeat gently, “I went…,” or interject, “You went somewhere?”  As they learn the rules of syntax I am there to offer quiet correction (although I try to ensure that I am listening first and not always demanding improvement of them).  Little, consistent, adjustments have helped them to overcome the stumbling blocks all students face in the acquisition of language; conjugating verbs correctly, choosing effective word order, and just making sense of English.  I have tried to be gentle and consistent in guiding my young ones towards correct speech while also being sensitive to what they’re saying – which I feel trumps how they’re saying it, most of the time.

Patience has been important in encouraging my children’s speech.  Each of my older boys has gone through a short phase of stuttering; they knew what they wanted to say but somehow there was no fluidity in how the words came out.  At times like these it has been very tempting to just jump in with what I thought they were trying to say.  Occasionally I’d offer a single word as a prompt, but usually I would be very careful to avoid putting words in their mouths or stressing them out by putting a time limit on my willingness to listen.  If it was a struggle for them to verbalise their thoughts then I knew I needed to be patient, or they would eventually become so frustrated with me that they’d give up talking to me altogether.  I knew it was also possible that my impatience might actually aggravate their difficulties.  So I have had to practice patience.

All of these things I have done with each of my babies.  It is interesting to me that, even though I have treated all my babies the same, the timing of their transition from signs and sounds to verbal language has varied.

As I was considering all this, with D’s recent explosion of words, I realized that the training process for language is remarkably similar to the training process for life that we, as parents, perform for our children.

We begin by naming everything.  Me, you, family, us.  We offer simple, clear descriptions: good, bad, right, wrong, clean, dirty.  We teach them about the world, and about their place in it.  We give them a solid understanding of the rules of our family and the laws of gravity.  We teach them what is acceptable, good, helpful, respectful, safe – and what is not.

We repeat ourselves.  Oh, how we repeat ourselves!  Putonyourhatyourcoatyourshoes…  Don’thityourbrother!  Eatthoseveggies!  Sayyourprayers!  The repetition creates meaning and defines expectations.  When they’re ready for launch those oft-repeated things will form the foundation upon which they’ll create their grown-up selves.

We offer correction and instruction by example.  Just as we offer the correct version of the words they’re trying to say as they’re learning to talk, as they are navigating their way through life we need to offer gentle correction and guidance.  We need to model ‘right behaviour’, just as we model proper grammar and speech.  If we don’t take the opportunity to guide our children’s language then they will take their major cues from their peers (often incorrectly); likewise, if we don’t teach them how to be good, kind, loving, responsible, and respectful, then someone else’s influence will shape their character (often detrimentally).

And, finally, we practice patience.  When I was a little girl, I had a cute poster that read,

Be patient – God isn’t finished with me yet!

I think it appealed to me because I worked hard at being good – but it would be equally appealing to my boys, who don’t (well, OK, maybe they do and I just need to be patient until they get there!).  We have to be patient, because our kids are works in progress and so are we.  Funnily enough, I think we are often a lot more forgiving of ourselves for the same behaviour for which we often get impatient with our kids.  We think they should have fewer outbursts (while we allow our tempers to flare at them), and govern themselves better (while we spend money too liberally and cheat on our diets)…  We have to be patient with them and forgive them for their imperfections, just as we overlook so many of our own faults.

We have to teach intentionally and consistently, model correctness, and patiently mold our kids’ characters so that they can develop into the best versions of themselves.  We have to celebrate the small steps they take towards that greater goal – applaud them when they discover their metaphorical toes and delight in their discoveries as they learn and grow.  And we have to remember that they will each take those steps towards maturity in their own time.

Learning language and learning life have a lot in common – and with both, we ultimately hope for deeper comprehension and richer expression.