Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Finding a voice - valuing children's communication

Last Friday morning when I woke up in my daughter’s house, my grandson Edward greeted me by stretching his arms to the ceiling and bending over to touch his toes. It was a wonderful moment of communication. Last time I had visited he had accompanied me when I did my morning stretches; his bodily gestures told me he remembered my visit and had an expectation of what we might do together. I have thought a lot about that this week and what it tells me about language development in a small child. It is one of the best things about being a Nana when my grandsons do something that sparks off a train of thought. In this blog I want to record my memories of Edward finding his voice.

I was visiting to share the celebration of Edward’s second birthday. Just two years old, he talks a lot but as yet the sounds that come out are not recognizable as words to the adults around him. I arrived on Thursday evening just as he and his four year-old, brother Charlie were having their bath. Charlie started to tell me about the bird of prey sanctuary they had visited that day and Edward tipped his head back and made open and shut gestures with his mouth. His dad explained he was showing me how a particular bird of prey had caught the food thrown to him by the staff at the sanctuary. His desire to communicate is strong; he wants to share and explain and inform the same as his brother. However sometimes this is frustrating for him. The next day in the car he wanted something and we couldn't work out what it was. We offered food, drink, a toy­ – we just couldn't get it right and he was so cross with us. I really felt the frustration of being a small person wanting to communicate and the big people just don’t understand.

Edward however, doesn’t need spoken language to know exactly what is going on around him. And there is a lot going on! He is surrounded by language and observes it being used to achieve all kinds of things and fortunately for him, all the adults include him in their talk. We see Edward as capable, we believe him when he is struggling to communicate and we expect him to be able to communicate in many different ways. We treat him as an understanding being who wants to make meaning out of what is going on around him. We have noticed with interest how he uses lots of talk to accompany whatever he is doing and do wonder what he is saying but can see that out of the big buzzing swarm of words that surrounds him he is finding his voice. And this voice is expressed using gestures as well as sounds; his whole body is involved in communicating. We pay attention because we assume intent when he addresses us, we respond to his gestures and sounds and recognize he has his own agenda and purpose and do our best, sometimes with limited success, to correctly interpret his signs. Of course he wants to communicate and we value language and immerse him in language related activities all the time. He is very responsive and shows his interest in words through his love of books and nursery rhymes and singing. We sit with him and read the books he chooses and love the way he actively engages and shows his enjoyment in sounds and gestures.

In a single day the activities Edward engages in at nursery and at home are all accompanied by language. He hears language being used for all sorts of different purposes to achieve different things. Sometimes language is directed at him, he is asked if he wants a drink or if he is hungry; sometimes he is given instructions, ‘sit down to eat your dinner’; sometimes he is told off, especially when he does something anti-social; sometimes language is used to try and persuade him to do something he doesn’t want to do. Language is used to describe what is happening or to tell him what is going to happen. When he shows emotions language accompanies it, ‘I know you are feeling angry, tired, frustrated etc.’; ‘You’re really enjoying that aren’t you?’ His expressions of affection are heartily returned and appreciated with words and gestures. Apart from the language directed at him he also hears his parents using language to achieve things, to plan, to speculate, to agree and disagree, to reflect and wonder, to explain and to share. It is a rich language environment and he clearly understands so much of what is going on and wants not only to be part of it, but also to influence it, to make a contribution.

When he does contribute he is definitely working within his own style; it is different to his brother's style and we know how important it is that we strive to understand him so we can support him. Watching his language development reminds me that one of the most important things about us as adults is our style of speech. Each one of us has a unique style of speaking and communicating and it is this more than anything else that gives us our particular individuality. Edward has helped me see how important it is to acknowledge this uniqueness in him and by extension get a firmer grasp of something universal in all of us. He has renewed my commitment to strive to understand this interesting and particular human phenomenon, the drive to communicate, to make meaning, to influence and control, to set our own agendas and make our voices heard. His older brother Charlie tells me, “Nana, he hasn’t got his words yet so we can’t understand him.” It is true, he hasn’t got many words we recognize as words yet, but Edward is a powerful communicator and certainly knows how to make his voice heard. And he makes me think and wonder – what an achievement!

I have written a number of blogs about childism and most of these have highlighted the prejudice adults show towards children simply because they are children. And it is true, dismissive and patronizing attitudes abound; respect for children as knowers is not high on the list of values our society espouses. Instead adults frequently approach children with a ‘we know best’ attitude and expect them to learn from us rather than the other way round. My experience as a grandparent has given me a chance to be in a position to know and experience the world in ways that are otherwise unavailable to me. And as I watch and interact with my grandsons I find it helps me learn and grow. In writing this blog I aim to challenge societal narratives that see children as less than adults and contribute to a different narrative them sees children as ends in themselves, fully worthy of moral respect that we can learn from as well as teach.