The day I discovered a book on teaching sign language to babies, precious treasure was unearthed.
The book taught parents how to use sign language to communicate with their hearing babies. Very intrigued, I took it home and devoured it (in between feeds, nappy changes, and mountains of washing). By the time my husband got home that evening I was totally hooked. He, on the other hand, thought it was just a bad idea.
After a little prodding, I discovered his greatest concern: If we taught our son to communicate with sign language, would he still want to talk? I showed him the research in black and white – babies who learnt to sign had vocabularies that were way ahead of those who didn’t. With that settled, we decided to give it a go.
The first sign we began to teach was drink, made by the hand raised to the mouth, with a closed fist and thumb touching the lips. Every time we would give our son his bottle we would use the word in a sentence, then perform the sign. Much like teaching a budgie to talk, but a lot more fun, we applied the same perseverance every day for weeks.
One morning after I strapped our cute nine-month old son into his highchair for breakfast, he leaned over, looked up at me with those big brown eyes, and to my surprise and delight he did the sign for drink. “You want a drink! Mummy will get you a drink!” I clapped my hands and jumped for joy. “Honey, it’s working, get the camera!” We were both delighted!
A few weeks later, with my son in his pram, I was doing some Christmas shopping. Inside a crowded gift shop, we stopped in front of a huge display of lava lamps, you know the ones that look like rocket ships with the fluorescent goo dancing around inside. Momentarily captivated by them until my son’s loud, and insistent noises, got my attention. I peered around the side of the pram to see what the fuss was about, and discovered him doing the sign for drink. “Do you want a drink?” He repeated the sign again.
Next came a harried battle to retrieve his bottle from the baby bag, wedged firmly under his seat. With a giant tug that sent me backwards, narrowly missing a tower of puzzles, I handed him his bottle. To my surprise he threw it onto the floor, and made the sign for drink again. I attempted to pass him the bottle for the second time, but he shoved it away and pointed to the display of lava lamps. Finally I got it, they must have looked to him like something to drink. “You are right Bodhi, they do look like a drink! Clever boy!” My enthusiastic praise had attracted the gaze of several quizzical onlookers. I thought I should offer an explanation for my apparent madness. “It’s just baby signing”, I say as I leave. I didn’t really care if they thought I was mad, my heart was too filled with joy to be embarrassed.
Over the coming months we were amazed at the ability of our baby to learn so many new signs. As well as many fun and cute signs, there were ones for safety too, like “hot”. Particularly useful to keep him safe around the oven, or rescue him from the hot pavers around the pool. I remember him daily scooting around the kitchen on his little red plastic car. Every time he would pass by the oven he would stop, look at me and do the sign for “hot”, it was so adorable. Communicating with sign language became our secret portal, creating a unique world for our son to have a voice, and express thoughts which otherwise would have remained unheard.
Story time became a rich, animated experience for our whole family. I can still see him sitting there on the floor, balancing a big picture book (almost bigger than him) open on his lap. With his chubby little fingers he would turn the page and pause to - rub his hand on his nose to signal a pig; pat his thigh because he saw a dog; raise his arm up with his hand shaped like a duck; sniff whilst scrunching his cute nose because he saw flowers; wave his hand behind him, like a tail, for a cat; flap his hands out to his side like a bird, and then whisk his tiny hand in front of him, and wiggle it like a fish.
My only regret about the baby sign language journey was lending my book to a friend, with the record of my children’s signs and the dates they learnt each one written in the back. Perhaps one day I’ll get that book back. But nevertheless even though we don’t have the physical records to remind us, we will always have the memories of our son and daughter signing, our priceless keepsakes forever.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem