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.

Personal Growth, Philosophy, Reflection

Humble Pie


I remember the first parenting course I ever took – and there have been a fair few since – in which the instructor began by asking us parents to name qualities we would like to encourage in our children as they grew.

Words quickly filled the whiteboard:






Good Work Ethic

Good Sense of Humour





… and so on.

All good, admirable qualities.  (Almost) all great predictors of ‘success.’

And then I added one:


Whereas the previous suggestions had garnered head nods and murmurs of approval, now instead there was puzzled silence.

Humility? you could hear them thinking;

Why would you want your kid to feel insignificant? 

Why would you want them to be WEAK???

But you see, that wasn’t what I meant at all.



Pronunciation: /hjʊˈmɪlɪti 


The quality of having a modest or low view of one’s importance

Now, I don’t know a single little kid who believes himself to be less important than anyone else.  I should qualify that; every single ‘normal’ kid (i.e., from a loving, nurturing home) naturally thinks the whole world revolves around him.  And that’s the way it should be.  Kids should understand their precious, unique, adored status in our lives – they should grow up with an innate sense of their worthiness of our love, respect, and care.

But that sense of entitlement to everyone’s attention and adoration, and that ‘me first’ mentality that we are all born with?  That’s actually selfishness.  And it’s only in teaching our kids humility that they are able to put those attitudes in perspective and learn to put the needs and comfort of others ahead of their own.

My mother had her own way of instilling a sense of humility in us.  We joke about it now, because (in retrospect), it wasn’t actually so helpful in other ways.  But it certainly did curtail any arrogance in us when she reminded us, kindly (and often enough that, as adults, we could repeat it back to her in jest):

Don’t forget – no matter how good you are at something, there’s always someone else out there who’s better at it!

So there was a subtle message about the undesirability of attempting greatness, which acted as a subconscious influence in my early childhood. And it was perhaps this attitude that led me to declare (whenever interrogated with that question asked so often of young children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”), “I don’t know what I want to be, but I know what I DON’T want to be, and that is famous.  Because famous people get assassinated.”  Yes, I was a barrel of chuckles as a kid.

Aside from my well-exercised laziness and a general inability in the athletic arena, I consider my mother’s admonition to blame for my failure to become an Olympian.

Nevertheless, remembering my place in the grand scheme of things did have its uses.  I learned that praise given by others is far more satisfying than a self-induced pat on the back.  I learned that it’s far more fulfilling to champion those around me than to focus on all my small failures that hold might me back from ‘achieving.’  I learned that there is great joy to be had in diversifying my interests, rather than concentrating on one thing at the exclusion of all else: the old descriptor, ‘Jack of all trades, master of none,’ seems to me a recipe for a happy and balanced life.

I have also been given circumstantial (and substantial) opportunities to learn humility throughout my life.  Technology, in particular, although very agreeable in many ways, frequently teaches me where I really fall on the grading curve of life:

  • Writing and editing are what I DO when I’m not wiping noses and bottoms and yelling at my kids and ignoring the housework – and yet MS Word regularly gives me a run for my money.  Any time there’s a new version or anything else out of the ordinary, I founder for days or weeks (or give up entirely and get Westley to figure it out) before it becomes functional to me again.
  • Automatic flush toilets, soap dispensers, faucets, pedestrian signals and other electronic devices frequently fail to acknowledge my presence.  How a toilet sensor could neglect to register a derrière the size of mine is in the realm of leprechauns in terms of its unbelievability, but there you have it.  Also, if I had a penny for every time I’d washed and rinsed my hands in a public restroom and then been spat on belatedly by a soap dispenser determined to undermine my sense of importance (this usually after having to hop from faucet to faucet to try to find one that will turn on for me to rinse off the suds from the first soap-dump)… And it’s possible that I’m reading too much into this, but it has happened fairly often that I have been walking under a street lamp in the dusk/dark and it has extinguished itself exactly in the moment that I have stepped out of the shadows and into its illumination.
  • In addition to my recurring troubles with Word, West has had to intervene in another area of my computer use: he had to turn off the scroll function on my mouse-pad because I kept accidentally highlighting and deleting stuff (which somehow I have still managed to do while writing this post. So. Many. Times).  That ‘back’ button is my hero.
  • I probably don’t need to even mention this one, because it’s probably most obvious to anyone reading this blog, but I have not yet managed to get the hang of changing fonts, or figuring out other aesthetic niceties of blog-design (even though I know that WordPress has some great tutorials).  I also managed to miss publishing a recent post on time (when I had scheduled it to appear) because somehow I had saved it as a ‘Draft’ and so had not released it for public viewing… I didn’t even know it was possible for that to happen, so it took me a while to figure out why I had zero views on my post some hours later.
  • On three separate occasions I have been out with the boys and other relatives on special outings and taken a good hundred digital photos before realizing that the camera was on the wrong setting and all those perfect shots were pretty much whitewashed. (In fact, you could say that my ineptitude at digital photography was over-exposed! *Ba-DOOM-Boom-CH!*) Worse yet?  The second time I did it the very next day after the first time I ruined the photos this way.
  • When we lived in Auckland, we drove a minivan imported from Japan.  It contained a navigation system but the maps were calibrated for the Land of the Rising Sun, so we always appeared to be driving somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.  But more alarming than that was the propensity this device had to randomly and frantically jabber out a warning to us in the sternest Japanese.  Our inability to turn this thing off (and its jarring effect on our nerves) was both mortifying and humbling.

All these ‘technological advances’ do nothing to advance my sense of self-importance.

In addition to this repeat program of humiliation-by-machine, I do also try to bear in mind that it is only by the grace of God that I am living in an era in which (Darwin Awards aside) my survival does not depend on my natural ability to see well and run fast (neither of which are attributes to which I can truthfully lay claim).

But, of course, on a more serious note, there is a great strength in learning the quality of humility.

It is in recognizing my insignificance in the expanse of time and history that the wonder of God’s love becomes most significant.  I, being practically nothing, am somehow worthy of His attention.

“I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.”

-Psalm 139:14

So this is the strange truth of humility: we are impermanent; fragile; mercurial; and unreliable in this life – in short, we are human – and yet, to Him we are everything.

Humble Pie never tasted so sweet.

Faith, Grace, Motherhood, Parenting


“The present is the only time in which any duty can be done or any grace received.”

-CS Lewis, in The Weight of Glory

It had been one of those days.  Or weeks. Or months.  In fact, for as long as I could remember, A.’s behaviour had been driving me up the wall.  He was seven (nearly eight), and it seemed that for most of his life I had been battling his attention-seeking naughtiness, lip-jutting defiance, and mercurial mood-swings – add to that the nail-biting, thumb-sucking, and eye-rolling nervous habits that were slowly becoming more and more worrying, and  I was at my wit’s end.  Finally the end of the day had come, and with it the blessed relief of some kid-free time (much of which, it must be admitted, I would spend searching out ways of dealing with the aforementioned issues).

I flicked on the TV for some background noise as I pulled my laptop onto my knees and began to catch up on emails.  There was some sort of musical show on that I hadn’t seen before (in retrospect, it might have been ‘Glee’), and in it, a couple of teenagers were falling in love.  Such sweet, enthralled innocence as they declared their fledgling love.  Their enchantment with one another caught my eye, and I abandoned my online tasks as I watched the scene play out.

The young girl rested her hand on her new beau’s shoulder and gazed up into his smiling face; and I suddenly imagined this scene playing out in my own eldest son’s life as he fell in love for the first time. I was stricken with a thought: What if this was the first time he has EVER really felt loved and accepted UNCONDITIONALLY??!   It was with gut-wrenching clarity that I realized that my love for my son had hitherto been expressed with so many conditions as to hobble his very sense of worth.

This was a child I had loved from before he came into existence; one I had wanted, and prayed for and delighted in; one I would give my very life for.  Of course I loved my son unconditionally. This was the child who, when given a special snack at preschool, would insist on a portion of his helping being bundled up to take home to his little brother.  The child who deferred to the wants and needs of almost everyone else before expressing his own preference for anything.  The child who approached others with open arms and ready hugs, even before he had been properly introduced.  And yet this child of mine, who loved and forgave transgressions in others so readily and so completely, was suffering because I was not demonstrating that love and forgiveness to him.

I was spending so much time and energy trying to change what I saw as A.’s problematic behaviour that he could have been excused for imagining that I was oblivious to all the things he was doing right.  I was so focused on the negative that, in fact, I was becoming blind to the positive.

I made a decision right then – one I have returned to again and again (because I, too, am a work in progress) – that I was going to have to change my perspective.

I had to start focusing on what A. was doing well.  I needed to let A. know that I loved and accepted him unconditionally; he didn’t need to wait until he was perfect.  He didn’t need to worry about messing up, because there would always be forgiveness.  He didn’t need to worry about me missing all the good stuff by nit-picking over the little flaws I saw, because I was going to start pointing out how wonderful he was.  And I was going to try to stop seeing some of those flaws, too.  Because when we love each other, we need to be blind to some of one another’s failings.  We have to be prepared to extend grace.  I kind of already knew this, as a recipient of Grace, as a Christian – I knew that God never waited for me to be worthy to extend His love and mercy to me – and yet somehow I was unwittingly withholding that grace from one I hold dearer than life itself.

I didn’t make that decision because I wanted to see change in my son.  I made that decision because I needed to see a change in me.  But grace is grace – and grace changes everything.

My little boy has blossomed.  Yes, he still has some nervous habits and he still struggles with his feelings and he still makes bad choices sometimes.  He still conducts experiments that result in destruction and he still blows up with frustration when he gets overwhelmed and he still sometimes acts defiant… But he knows that he is loved.  He is so quick to apologize when he messes up, and he’s so sincere about that apology.  He is such a loving and cuddly kid, even at age nine when some of his friends won’t even hug their Mums in public.  I delight in him, and he knows it.  Sure, I sometimes yell – we laugh about it, because he knows that I’m a work in progress, too – and then he forgives me.  So now I don’t worry that he is thirsting for love and acceptance.

I’ve chosen grace, and grace changes everything.