Given the primacy of language in children’s development, one of the historically common ideas that we should all immediately scrub from our thoughts is…
Children should be seen, but not heard.
Perhaps “HOGWASH!” is the best response to such self-serving silliness. The premise that children should remain quiet until spoken to by parents and other adults lays the groundwork for the idea that children have nothing valuable to contribute to family conversations. That’s exactly the opposite of what must happen if our littles are to experience sustained success in school and life.
To promote strength and clarity in children’s languages (note the plural there) the rest of us must create more than just a benign space where children are allowed to talk. We have to create a nurturing arena where children are fully encouraged to speak, a place where they can learn that their initiation of conversation actually makes a difference to them and to their families.
How do we create a space that welcomes their verbal contributions?
We do this by first deciding to become active listeners instead of passive observers of babies and small children. We make this happen by becoming thoughtful kid watchers while we are being good caregivers. We do this by modeling to young parents what listening to baby babbles and short toddler utterances looks like, and how easy and fun it is.
If children are to develop their voices as participants and contributors in the family and society, then they must be reared in a responsive context where they can develop a sense of agency, where what they communicate makes a difference in what happens to and for them.
Visually, this begins with facial expressions and gestures. We pop our eyes. We raise, lower and contort our brows. We exaggerate emotions. We offer babies active hands and arms framed by emotive postures and rhetorical calisthenics of movement and even dance. To that we add wonderful vocals of varying volume and pitch, pauses, speed and even silence.
We do this all in an effort to convey the range of ways we and the baby can mean things to each other and to extend the invitation for them to try them on for size. By offering infants and preschoolers such a smorgasbord of communication, we invite them to adopt and adapt those to their own purposes.
The lifelong conversations among parents and teachers and their kids should begin when tinies start to convey to the world just what they want, what they need, and how they wish to be understood through infinite combinations of sense-filling acts that allow us all to connect.
Baby’s first words, smiles, tears and expressions, while reason for celebration, cannot be considered the goal with all other communicative efforts seen as less important. We must absolutely encourage them to speak AND be heard, starting day one and throughout their formative years, with adult willingness to be impacted by their incipient and growing efforts to BE SOMEBODY.