When milestones become millstones
“Wa- tootie!!” my two-year-old yelled. I cringed as I imagined the sideways glances and raised eyebrows of my friends.
Our “Mom’s group” met for coffee and Bible study every other Friday. When the kids came up from the basement playroom to join us for snacks, I listened closely and took mental notes.
Another two-year-old politely asked: “May I have a cookie, please?”
And another: “I like chocolate chip cookies. Mommy makes them at our house.”
“Wa- tootie!!” my daughter repeated. I knew better than to make her perform and say “please” in front of my friends, so I quietly slipped her the cookie and sent her off to play.
Invariably, the conversation would turn to our children. As I chatted about my little ones, my voice was confident and self-assured. But inside there lurked another voice.
It was the voice of uncertainty and doubt. The voice of a mom who measured and compared and worried about whether her kids would achieve the “developmental milestones” we all knew were the gospel of child-rearing.
I heard my friends’ toddlers speaking in articulate, mini-adult-like sentences, so eloquent they could join a toddler debate team. I heard my own child’s silence, or garbled, dysfluent, one- or two-word utterances, so unintelligible that I was the only one who could understand. And sometimes, even I had no clue.
I was counting words. And comparing. And measuring. I fretted about those developmental milestones. To make matters worse, as a practicing speech-language pathologist, I knew exactly how my kids measured up.
I had memorized language development norms in grad school, years before I had my own little ones. So understandably, as a new mom, I waited with great anticipation for those first words (at one year); the 10-15 word count (at 18 months); and 50-100 words, 2-word combinations, and a good mix of nouns and verbs (at age two).
I did all the right things to promote great language development. I imitated their cooing and had “conversations” with them long before they had words. I shaped their babbling into words, giving meaning to their vocal play.
“Mmmm” my little darling would innocently utter, while munching on cheerios in the high-chair.
“Mmmmore? You want mmmmore?” I would reply, also using the sign for “more” at least a half-dozen times, and then helping those little hands form the sign as well.
Later during playtime, I would hear “Bababa,” from across the room.
Running to find a ball, I’d thrust it into those same little hands and say, “Ball! You want a ball!” It was tossed aside with disinterest.
As my babies grew into toddlers, I expanded those utterances, from one word to two, or two words to three or four. Always aiming for the next milestone of language development.
In my mind, with all of this spot-on language stimulation, my kids would definitely start talking well ahead of schedule. After all, the norms were averages, right? And surely with all my know-how and targeted interaction, my kids should come in above average, somewhere to the right on that bell-shaped curve.
And I might have been correct in my assumptions, if it weren’t for one small detail I neglected to consider.
All of my knowledge and the antics I performed could not change my children’s genetics. When I look at my kids now, it’s pretty obvious they all have a similar genetic make-up. After all, they are biological children of the same two people. Genetics gives them their natural tendencies toward music and math, both of which are strengths my husband and I brought to the table. Even when they were little, I could see they had stand-out gifts, as they stacked their nesting cups, fixed puzzles, and sang little tunes on key.
My first-born, at around age four, looked at the array on a phone’s keypad, and said, “Mommy, look! Three fours make twelve!” He was doing multiplication without ever having opened a math book! (Some years later he graduated from Notre Dame with a math degree, and now has a great career working as a web developer.)
And then there was music. Our home was constantly filled with the joyful sound of singing, piano, guitar, trumpet, flute and percussion. As the kids grew, our calendars filled with piano recitals, band and choir concerts, competitions, and musicals. They were naturals, thanks in large part to the genetic make-up they had been born with.
And yet. Rather than focusing on those strengths, I stressed about the skills they didn’t excel in, which for all of them, included talking. While my husband and I don’t struggle to communicate, I wouldn’t call either of us an eloquent speaker. We get by, but public speaking of any kind is not our forte.
And so it was with my children. Much to my chagrin, they did not talk early. Instead, they were pretty “average;” just barely hitting every norm at the expected age. But from my viewpoint, that was too slow. I wanted them to speak in sentences at age two like my friends’ kids. I wanted to show my prowess as a language stimulator and a super-speech-path-mom. My kids, on the other hand, were trying to show me something different.
I can’t tell you now how long it took, but eventually I figured it out.
God had given each of my children, as well as my friends’ children, their own unique gifts. My worry and angst stemmed from my own feelings of fear, insecurity, and envy. The milestones had become a millstone, dragging me down with the emotional burden of feeling neither I nor my children were measuring up.
Perhaps my greatest realization though, was that the miracle of speech and language was my children’s greatest gift of all; not because of how well they performed in this area, but because of what it could accomplish.
I came to understand my children were not talking FOR me. They were talking TO me.
And although they were talking, I hadn’t really been listening. When I stopped measuring and comparing and counting words, I was freed up to listen. And the circle of communication was complete.
What mattered most was not where my children landed on that bell curve, but where their words landed when they tumbled out of their mouths.
They needn’t land on a measuring stick; but on a listening ear.
They didn’t exist to give me bragging rights; but to provide a bonding relationship.
They shouldn’t be categorized by parts of speech; but captured by the heart.
Through the years, I loosened that millstone around my neck, and took the developmental milestones for what they are. Averages. Guidelines. General markers to help parents along the way.
Beyond that, my children’s words served a higher purpose. They called me to listen, to understand, and to form relationships that would last long after those milestones were met.
As a SLP, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that some kids do, indeed, need some help in meeting those milestones. On the bell curve of speech and language development, most kids fall somewhere in the middle, but there are extremes at either end. On the right, are those kids who are talking in full, articulate sentences at age two. On the left, are those that truly struggle to learn to communicate. Those kids do need our special attention and a watchful eye.
If you are unsure, call a Speech Language Pathologist. Your child may need a little extra push to jump-start his speech and language. Oftentimes there are waitlists for early intervention programs, and by the time a child’s name reaches the top of the list, he no longer has a delay. (Kids have a way of keeping us guessing, right?) Still, there’s no way of predicting what will happen, and having made that call gives parents a little peace of mind as they wait.
Speech and language delays may also be an indication of other underlying disorders, such as hearing loss, learning disabilities, apraxia (a motor speech disorder), or autism. Rather than relying on your “gut” or intuition, or the opinions of friends and relatives, take a look at the ample resources online that provide guidance on when to seek help. Some reliable sites are: the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), The Hanen Centre, Apraxia Kids, and Autism Speaks. When in doubt, it’s best to check things out!