22 February 2011

Please and Thank You (2 February 2011)

My daughter is not particularly polite.  Just shy of seventeen months old she is hardly to be blamed.  When reminded, she’ll sign thank you if handed something, but she hasn’t quite managed to learn the word please.  My husband is assured by a colleague at his office that saying please is not the same as meaning it.  This man’s daughter, Audrey, tacks it onto the end of many of the words that she has learned.  “Upplease!!!” seems to be a favorite expletive, spoken almost as if a uttering a curse.

So I cannot blame Emmaline for being more intent on learning words like bath andmouse and yellow when she might be learning please.  More likely, though, it is a reflection on the language that she hears spoken around her.  We are, though generally appreciative of each other, not an overly formal household.  Still, as Emmaline does pick up more of the things we do and say we’ve had to become more cognizant of the impact it might have on her.  This not only applies to the stray execration, which we’ve done an as yet imperfect job of eliminating entirely, but more generally to the flow of words issuing forth throughout the day.

Emmaline understands a great deal even if she cannot yet say.  In a hallmark study on language acquisition amongst toddlers, Betty Hart and Todd Risley observed young children from different families in Kansas City.  The children, one and two years of age, were trailed by graduate students who would later sort through the conversation had with and around them and make note of the quantity of words spoken.  Their findings were some of the impetus behind such programs as Head Start.

On average the children in professional households heard 2,153 words an hour while those in low income families heard only 616.  This resulted in measurably larger vocabularies amongst the higher income children by the age of three.  The study went on to show that, over time, this early advantage persisted and translated into higher language test scores when they were nine and ten.  

I knew this when Emmaline was born and so I, like many well-meaning new moms, spoke to her almost constantly.  This lasted maybe a week.  Then I got tired and there were times, I have to admit, when I changed her diaper in silence – a blessed silence – and I almost managed to not feel guilty about it.

I reasoned that this was fine because early on she had no idea what I was talking about.  She knew the sound of my voice, of course, and perhaps there were times when it was soothing to her, but she also simply wanted to be held.  And so she was, for approximately eleven weeks straight, for every hour of every day except those when she was sleeping right beside me.  It was a long eleven weeks, so I figure I deserved some quiet every once in a while. 

Now, though, she does understand much of what I say, and so the endless babbling has had a resurgence.  My own logorrhea is matched only by hers.  This is also important, since how parents respond to their children determine how quickly they will pick up on the importance of their own vocalizations and add new words to their repertoire. 

The research on this is outlined beautifully in Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s NurtureShock, which my husband and I both refer to frequently in our debates about how and why we should treat Emmaline one way instead of another.  He has especially taken to heart their chapter on not overpraising children, since it may make them more anxious to try difficult tasks if it means that they might fail.

Emmaline (sixteen months old, remember) sits at the piano.  She bangs out a few notes.  She bellows loudly, which is her version of song.

“Beautiful music!” I exclaim in encouragement.

Emmaline kicks up a foot and brings it down on the keys.

My husband shakes his head at me and says, “No.”  He then turns to the baby and says, “Good job.  I can tell you’re trying very hard.”

I would imagine even Amy Chua would have to admit that a baby is too young for strict music lessons, so perhaps Daryl’s dogged avoidance of empty praise is overdoing it somewhat on that score.  Still, Emmaline is entering into that stage of development when her vocabulary will depend very much on what we do and say. Shouldn’t we, also, be trying as hard as we can?  Audrey, after all, has learned to say please.

So this morning, she woke up when I was still in bed down the hall.

“Oh!” I heard her say.  Then, “Uh oh.”

I got up.

“Emma,” I called out to her.

And through the door she said, “Emma.”

I opened the door.  She looked at me, then pointed down at the floor where her blanket had fallen.

“Oh no!” she cried.

“Your blanket is on the floor.”

“Oh no,” she repeated.

“It’s okay, I can get it.”

I did.  She buried her face for a moment, then looked out into the hall.

“Cat,” she said.

“Maybe the cat will come if we call him,” I agreed and made a clicking noise to summon Crake.  

He trotted into her room.

“Cat,” Emmaline said again.

“Do you want to get down and see him?  Do you want me to help you?”

Emmaline put her arms out to me, “Up.”

I picked her up then put her down on the floor so the cat would rub up against her.

“Dog,” she said to me.

“The dog is downstairs.”


“I don’t know,” I shrugged.  “Maybe Nana is downstairs too.”

“Bye!” she headed for the stairs

“Can we change your diaper first?  Then we can go look for Nana.”

Emmaline turned to the changing table, then looked back at me.

“Bum bum,” she said.

I lifted her up and kissed the top of her head.

“Yes.  We need to change your bum bum.”

The day went on.  She said all gone when her bowl of blueberries was empty andmore when the music on the radio stopped while we were dancing and didn’t start up quickly enough for her.  She said bounce when looking at a picture of Tigger. She said baa when looking at a picture of a sheep.  She said a lot of things but still no please.  We’ll continue to work on it.  I’m not worried, though.  While I cannot speak for Daryl, I would venture to claim that Emmaline is both trying hard and doing a fabulous job.  I can’t imagine he would disagree. 

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