Monday, February 28, 2011

Speech Delays

It’s official. The boys have language delays. They are nearly 14 months old (10 ½ months adjusted) and they still don’t know any words. By 10 months, Chiara had already said her first word* and was started to sign regularly.

* “Bye-bye” to a very disgruntled airline passenger. When I told the woman that my daughter had just said her first word to her, the woman brightened and oohed and ahhed and cooed at Chiara.

I don’t mean that the boys don’t say any words; I meant that the boys don’t understand any words. They don’t turn to me when someone says, “Where’s Mama?” They don’t know who “Daddy” is. When you say, “Look!” and point, they don’t look. They don’t even know their own names, a milestone that is usually reached around six months of age.

What does this all mean? It means that the boys have significant speech delays, because, of course, before you can speak you must first understand. By 15 months most babies understand just about everything that is said to them (or at least, they can intuit fairly well what is expected of them). We are way off that mark.
Even the experts don’t fully understand how we acquire language. They just know that it happens. If you’re around it, it will come. When babies are born, they can attune to every phonological sound that happens in every language. This is a little difficult to explain without a remedial lesson in phonetics, but it’s like this: different languages have different sounds. For example, Japanese has one sound that for us can be either an “l” or an “r.” Spanish has a “b-ish/v-ish” sound that is written as “b” but is neither like an English “b” or “v,” as in the word “cabeza” or “calabacitas.” (To make things more confusing, Spanish also has a “b” sound that is written as “b” that does sound like an English “b.” Confused? Just wait til I get going! 
This back story is just to say that there are about 200 different consonant and vowel sounds, but you only hear 45 of them unless you are completely fluent in another language (using native consonants when speaking a foreign language is part of what makes a foreign accent). Newborns hear all 200 of them. In other words, at birth, all American babies can hear both Spanish “b’s” just as all Japanese babies can hear the difference between “l” and “r.” Then, as babies acclimate to the language around them, their brains attune the sounds of what will be their native language. Around nine months, American babies will no longer hear the difference between the [b] in “bonita” and the [b] in “calabacitas” and Japanese babies will hear “lake” and “rake” as the same word.
As babies start to tease out the sounds of their soon-to-be native language, they also start to figure out that strings of speech sounds correlate to certain meanings. Around the six-month mark, most babies figure out that there is a string of sounds that correlates to them. You know this because around six months, you can call your baby’s name and she will turn her head to look at you. It is also true that your daughter will turn her head to look at you when you call her, “Potato Head,” but the difference is not only that (hopefully) you call her by her Christian name far more often than when you call her, “Potato Head,” but your reaction is (hopefully) very different when she turns her head in response to her name and when she turns her head in response to “Potato Head.” This is how she figures out her name. 
This is important because once she learns her name, she can use those sounds as a “token.” We imagine that spoken words have pauses between them in the same way that we have spaces between written words. That is a figment of your imagination. (You might have experienced this phenomenon if you have ever tried to learn a foreign language). 
So how do babies do it? How do they figure out where the beginnings and endings of words are? How do they figure out that sounds are words in the first place? How do they figure out that sounds are referential and not just exclamations of joy and/or poop? 
Well, for one thing, we don’t talk to our babies in the same way that one would, for example, defend his dissertation. We modify the way we speak (experts call it “Motherese”) and we modify what we say. Motherese refers to the tendency of all people, in all (studied) cultures, and all languages, (even of all ages; Chiara speaks Motherese when she talks to the boys) to speak slower, higher pitched, and more exaggeratedly when speaking to babies. 
Ooh!!! Are those your toes, Michael? Michael, those are your toes! Michael, look at your toes?
You know what I’m talking about—it’s that stupid way that people talk to babies that you vow you will never do. Then you have a baby or you see a baby or you think about a baby and you open your mouth and out tumbles Motherese, as if your were a native speaker. Good thing, too, because Motherese really helps babies learn language.

Wagner after a tortellini dinner

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

If You Give A Preschooler A Party

At the end of last week’s episode, our proud heroine was bragging about the no-frills party she was going to throw for her daughter. Let’s tune in today to see just how that party really went.

It was a dark and stormy night…

My original vision was to have the party guests bring baby clothes to donate instead than birthday presents. There’s a hair salon up the street which exclusively cuts kid’s hair and is also a drop-off point for gently used (or new) clothes for babies in their first year of life. The clothes are carefully packed in 12-inch by 12-inch boxes with an even distribution of sizes from newborn up to one year. The boxes are then labeled for gender and doled out to Bay Area maternity wards to Moms who will need them the most. (Alta Bates NICU is also a recipient). For the curious or for those buried under piles of tiny Baby Gap onesies, the organization is called Loved Twice and you can read about them at

I thought the kids could help decorate the boxes with stickers and then we’d all parade to the hair salon where we would exchange the clothes for some heavy praise and helium balloons. Then we’d walk back to the house for the rest of the party.

The problem was that it would most certainly be raining cats and dogs that day. Besides, no one had any hand-me downs anymore. So we scrapped that part of the party. Instead, I made an appointment for Chiara and a friend to get their hair cut and “styled” (glitter and princess braids) early that morning and we’d drop off our boxes then (we have LOADS of baby clothes to pass on.) Good thing, too, because it was the kind of rainy day that makes you wonder why we still have to take three-minute showers. Those reservoirs must be pretty full by now.
The party itself went very smoothly, but I was surprised at my lack of foresight in some key areas. Here are ten nuggets of After-the-fact Wisdom:

1. Get a noise ordinance.
Little kids are really loud. And for every party guest, the decibel level increases by a factor of two. One more kid and we would have been louder than a 70’s Deep Purple concert. I’m surprised that our downstairs neighbors didn’t march through the door and throw all the kids out the window. If you invite more than two children, consider earplugs.

2. Sometimes four-year-olds act like little kids.
Somehow I thought I’d invite four of Chiara’s friends and it would be like having five Chiaras sitting playing quietly until dinner. But here she was, running around and screaming—just as loud and rambunctious as the rest of them.
When I came into the twins’ room and shouted, “Everybody get out of the crib, NOW!” she responded with, “We heard you tell us not to jump in the crib but we misunderstood.”

3. If you give five preschoolers a raw egg to hold, at least two will drop theirs within the first ten seconds.
We had this brilliant idea of having the kids make and decorate cupcakes. Chiara and I had a blast baking the cake we brought to daycare for snack time and I thought that cupcakes would be a nice activity during the party. So while I finished making dinner, Matt and the kids made cupcakes. Let’s just say that messes were made.

4. You can’t make kids eat green beans.
And there ain’t nothing nobody can do about it. All four guests politely turned down my green beans with a lovely, “No, thank you.” I had even sautéed them in bacon grease to make them extra appealing. Only Chiara took a healthy helping, possibly because she was afraid I’d deny her a birthday cupcake if she didn’t eat some vegetables.

5. Make sure you feed everybody.
If there were one thing we would have done differently, it would have been to only invite one child to the party. If there were two things we would have done differently, it would have been to have the twins’ babysitter come to take care of the boys during the party because I’m sure she would’ve remembered to feed them. We thought they were screaming because they wanted to be like the other party-goers. Turns out they were just really, really hungry.

6. Cupcakes are hard to frost.
Who knew? While five kids consumed approximately four green beans and sixteen pounds of macaroni and cheese, two dozen pink and chocolate cupcakes cooled. Then while Matt fed the twins, the kids and I decorated the cupcakes. We had three different colors of frosting: white, pink, and chocolate, and a shaker with six different kinds of sprinkles. The trouble is, the frosting has to be spread with the slightest touch. If you bear down too hard, the cake comes off with the frosting. This was frustrating for some of the kids. One went through four cupcake tops before I caught on to what was going on. In the end, I frosted while the kids waited patiently for their turn for the shaker. This is actually very sweet.

“F,” one would ask, “Can I have the sprinkles when you are done?”

They kept careful tabs on who was next in line for sprinkles, cordially passing the shaker around the table like little Stepford children.

7. Excited children pee a lot. Sometimes all over the sofa.
Actually, it wasn’t the sofa. It was the upholstered bench of the breakfast nook. Chiara, the kid who only needs to pee three times during daylight hours (balanced by seventeen times between the hours of 8pm and 10pm) had an accident of Hoover Dam proportions. She was hysterical over the accident. Absolutely inconsolable.

“I’ve never seen so much pee in my whole life!” she sobbed.

Neither had I. While Matt gave Chiara an impromptu bath, I cleaned up the mess while the other kids played “daycare,” putting one of the kids behind the safety gate and telling her not to cry and that her parents would come back for her soon. Luckily, when the twins heard the bathwater being run, they saddled up to the tub to cheer Chiara on (they really did!), leaving me to clean without having to worry about where they were or who else might be trying to pick them up.

8. Sometimes, just sometimes, you can tell five kids to put on their pajamas and put their day clothes in their backpacks and they will do it.
It’s true.

We also were able to get each kid to bring his plate and placemat to the kitchen and even got them to help Chiara clean up her room! The only trouble was that they had no way of knowing what went where. But all in all they did a great job. I almost had them help me clean out the pantry as well.

9. If you decide to show a 24-minute cartoon, make sure it’s actually only 24 minutes, and not the one Backyardigans episode that is really a ninety-one-minute movie.
Yeah. Our bad on this one. Three Backyardigans disks from Netflix and we open the director’s cut of “Robot Repairman.”

10. If you forget to bring out the party hats, for God’s sake don’t bring it up when you are kissing your child goodnight.
‘Nuff said.

Overall, everyone had a blast. This little video captures a bit of the magic.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Nostalgic Happiness

I just finished sorting the last of the clothes that the boys have outgrown. I have: one big bag for a mom at daycare (we are trading baby boy clothes for girly dresses for 4yo) and two wine boxes (boxes for a case of wine) of baby boys clothes for the Loved Twice organization. (They send moms-in-need home from the hospital with a case-sized box full of clothes sized newborn to 12 months. Alta Bates is one of the hospitals for whom they collect donations). Anyway, I'm doing it today because their drop off site is a salon that cuts kid's hair and tomorrow morning Chiara and a friend are going to get their hair done in the most princess way possible.

What a journey going through the hand-me-downs!

The clothes on top were easy--it's the stuff they've most recently outgrown. But getting to the bottom of the box was like traveling through time.

Of course there was a fourth pile--the Hawaiian outfits that we busted out (literally) for Cousin-O-Rama. The fanciest socks EVER from the Abnees. Cathy Johanni's matching World Peas outfits, the 4th of July outfits my mom got. Matching sleepers from one of our nurses. All the while the clothes are getting tinier and tinier until we get to the shirts that the boys wore in their last month at the hospital. Shirts that would barely fit Chiara's dolls.

And then, at the very bottom of the box, two notes from Cousin Jack (6 yo now), one for each twin, with pictures of a baby in a stroller and someone pushing the stroller.



I never thought of it that way, but Jack's right.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Super Mom

Every once in a while, I have a moment that makes me feel like Super Mom. Like the time I simultaneously nursed twins, supervised a preschooler’s art project and, with the help of a Hello Kitty radio, followed the Giants as they clinched the World Series. Somewhere in between the fifth and seventh innings I cooked dinner, too. True story.

Well, folks, I’ve done it again. My Super Mom moment of 2011: I am throwing a birthday party for my soon-to-be four year old. And I have laid down the law. No presents. No piñatas. No princess party entertainers. No goodie bags.

Next Saturday four moms from preschool are going to drop off four preschoolers. Here in our modest apartment we will don party hats and eat pasta and green beans. We will sing “Happy Birthday” (and eat cake—I’m not a total Party Tyrant). And then we will watch T.V. That’s the party. And I think the kids will love it.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “How does throwing the lamest party of all time make you Super Mom?”

It doesn’t. What makes me Super Mom is my decision to stand up to party peer pressure. I refuse to throw a birthday party that requires roughly the same amount of stress and planning as my wedding reception did. Don’t get me wrong. Parties are great. I love parties. But they’re not about the size of the venue or the length of the guest list or pile of presents. They’re about sharing and friendship. That’s why we are only inviting the kids we know really well.

At first I was terrified that some afternoon at preschool a mob of angry Moms would corner me and demand that their child be invited to my daughter’s party. How dare I exclude them! How dare I deviate from party protocol!

But then I realized that none of us wants to be part of the birthday party insanity. None of us wants to be pressured into throwing a party with thirty screaming kids cracked out on sugar, just as none of us wants to be pressured into picking out presents such as developmentally appropriate Melissa & Doug macramé kits when it’s our kid’s turn to be a guest in the rented Bouncy House. We are all looking for a way to jump off the birthday bandwagon.

When I informed Chiara what I’d planned she said, "Well, I have some things that I would like to have at my birthday party."

Like what?

"I would like to have my friends play in my bedroom."


"And can I put my candles on the cake?"

Of course!

"And can I have chocolate cake and pink frosting?"

Yes. Yes, of course you can.

And that’s why I am Super Mom. Because I can give my kid everything she wants for her birthday.