This is a Guest Post brought to you by Jenni Lafferty from Blue Eyes / Green Feet
Baby sign your way to a polite, well-mannered toddler…
Our first child was born when we lived overseas in Amsterdam. I was a stay at home mom and had time to read books about things like teaching your baby how to sign. I watched friends teach their child to sign and thought it was genius. I put it on my list of things to do once I became a parent.
Our hope in teaching our baby sign language was to reduce his frustration during those months when children can communicate but don’t yet have the ability to speak. Without a method of communication that both child and parent understand, children are left to fuss/scream/whine until you figure out what they want. Who enjoys being around a screaming, frustrated baby or toddler…anyone, anyone?
While he was still babbling, our son could communicate complete sentences through sign language. He was early to speak words and phrases, “for a boy”, 8-12 months ahead of the curve according to our pediatrician. Once our son could speak he would say the word as he signed it for a couple of weeks and then drop the sign. Baby sign worked well for us in limiting his frustration and improving his verbal skills. What we didn’t expect from baby sign was a well paved avenue for us to teach manners, which I’ll cover later in this post!
We started with “more” ::
Six months old is when our children eat their first solid foods. Shortly after this time, once they can associate food with sitting in their high chair and that small bowl in front of them we teach the first sign, which is always “more.” There are entire books written on how to teach your baby sign language, but in case you don’t have time to read one here is what we did…
You’re sitting with your child and the food is between the two of you. Give them a bite. Before the next bite, even if they fuss because they’re hungry and you’re stalling, do two things at the same time. Sign and speak word “more.” Repeat this between each bite.
A few weeks later you can add the next step. In between bites, sign and speak “more,” then say it again but use their hands to sign “more.” A tip for you: manipulate their hands in front of their eyes, it forms a stronger association between the the action and the word when they see their own hands. It wasn’t long after this step that our children would attempt their first unassisted sign!
Above is our oldest son, Adriaan, and his first version of “more.” Right in front of his face where I put his little hands to teach him the sign.
Three things to keep in mind. One, if you have a hearing child you should always speak while signing for language development. Two, their version of “more” and other signs may not be perfect at first. Keep working with their hands so that in time they can correctly articulate the sign. Third, “more” was a great first sign because it was always rewarded with immediate satisfaction, another bite of food.
Above is a photo of our twin boy, Sebastian, and his first version of “more.” In his version, he would touch his pointer fingers together.
Our daughter, Eden, didn’t pick up as many signs as her twin brother because she wasn’t as interested in eating. She would wait for him to do the work and then go along for the ride. With two mouths to feed and sign language to teach in between bites we also juggled another lesson, taking turns. It was comical to watch Sebastian try to get his head in front of the spoon aimed for his sister’s mouth. It’d be her turn but he was enthusiastically, as if yelling, signing “more!”
We turned it into “more, please” ::
After teaching several additional signs that stemmed from learning “more,” like food (for hungry) and milk (for thirsty), we slowly introduced “please.” Review the steps above if they’re helpful and connect the two signs to make “more please.” Through their eyes it might have seemed like we suddenly had no idea what “more” meant because we expected to see “more, please.” We were patient through the transition because it was important to us that our children speak politely to us and others.
Don’t get the wrong impression and assume that we somehow magically avoided all tantrums. There were epic fail dinners. Those were opportunities to teach them about being patient. I tried my best to take advantage of those opportunities but most of the time I really wanted to just go hide in my room and take a nap! We have a little song that we sing about being patient. It’s fun to sing and provides a distraction. It’s even more fun, for me, to get silly with it and sing it in opera, with a thick southern twang or an overly pretentious British accent.
Did it work?
With the twins my memory is blurry but I recall that before Adriaan could walk he could sign “more milk please.” It was the coolest thing ever the day he crawled over to the couch, pulled up and balanced long enough to free his hands and show me the signs. There was no fussing or screaming or guesswork on my part, I knew exactly what he wanted and he even asked nicely. That may have been the most celebrated snack in my history as a mother, I was so thrilled!
The other set of signs that greatly influenced our toddlers’ manners were “all done” and “down.” Learning how to sign “all done” gave our first child the ability to communicate that he was finished without fussing or screaming. When he was finished he’d sign “all done.” We would clean him up, release him from the high chair and then enjoy the rest of our meal while he crawled laps around the table. Once ready, we added the sign “down” so that he could politely communicate, “all done, down please.”
And then there were three children around the table and only two of us. These signs were still helpful but dinner in general wasn’t as relaxed as it was when we had only one child. Sebastian ate much more than Eden, so we had to change the rules. The new rule was that when all the kids were finished eating, everyone would be excused. This turned out to be helpful for Adriaan, our oldest, because he began to learn to sit still at the table even when his meal was complete.
Toddlers who say “please” and “thank you” ::
Currently, our five year old and two year old twins say these words because they learned to communicate them as babies. Our desire and expectation for them to be respectful and to speak politely hasn’t changed.
We don’t sign much anymore now that everyone can speak, but the children still understand the signs. This comes in handy when we’re out in public, mostly at the library. When I flash “no touch” or “sit still” from across the room, they know exactly what I’m saying!
Teaching baby sign requires work and patience but the rewards, in our experience, were worth the effort.
Jenni’s three children, Adriaan, Sebastian and Eden are the inspiration behind her small business, edie bird. It’s a local-centric company supplying eco-friendly & non-toxic household cleaning supplies. It’s no secret that she prefers getting her hands dirty over cleaning her house. Jenni is turning their ¼ acre lot in Austin, TX into an urban farm. Whole Living Magazine awarded a photo of her garden with the grand prize in their “Inspired Outdoor Living Spaces” photo contest.