I can’t say I like my hands. I’ve always felt my fingers are too short, wide, and stubby, lacking any element of grace from knuckles to nails. I think of them as my Ukranian farmer hands—a whole lot of Cmaylo genes plumping out my fingertips. From my mom’s side of the family, I inherited my grandmother’s first finger, which veers in the direction of the other digits rather than following a straight trajectory from the wrist. The combination of stubby, warped fingers allows me to marvel at hand models in moisturizer ads. Comparatively, their hands belong to a different species.
Little Friend lucked out in the hands department by not inheriting my genes. Even as an infant in an incubator, it was pretty clear that she benefitted from her daddy’s long, elegant fingers and strong hands. I have hands on the brain these days because they’re my mediator in conversing with my daughter. Like the best of UN translators, I can trust Little Friend’s (beautiful) hands to convey her exact intentions. Because her speaking vocabulary consists of a few inconvenient syllables: “Dada,” “Yeah,” “Please,” “Baby” and “Georgia” (why that comes before “Mama” is beyond me), I’m basking in gratitude for Baby Sign Language.
Baby sign language is based primarily on American Sign Language (ASL) and allows children to communicate with words before oral language typically develops. While there are many books, websites, and DVDs promoting baby sign language, I’ve fallen in love with Signing Time, a DVD series created for hearing children by a mom of a deaf daughter. According to the Signing Time website, “Scientific studies suggest that ‘typical’ children who learn to sign have higher IQ scores, are better adjusted, and read at an earlier age.” What altruistic reasons to teach baby sign language! I confess my own motivation is purely selfish. I simply want to know why my child is screeching at me from her high chair and put an end to the ear-abuse as quickly as possible. Fortunately, sign language can also ameliorate the terrible twos. “Many tantrums are directly linked to frustration about communication,” Signing Times observes. “There is less frustration when your child can augment their communication skills with signs that both of you can understand.”
Thanks to a pair of small, chubby hands and a lot of repetition on my part, Little Friend’s signing vocabulary allows her to name and direct her world. Without moving her mouth, she can say “dog, cat, fish, train, all done, eat, water, milk, come, ball, flower, play, more, and thank-you.” We began signing to her when she was about nine months old with the basics: eat, drink, and all done. It took a few months before she caught on, but now she can learn a new sign every couple of days. Now I’m starting to worry that I will be signing with her until she hops on the bus for kindergarten. Why try saying “cat” aloud when you can just scratch your head (her version of the sign for cat)?
Little Friend’s favorite sign is “more.” Like many of her signs, she has adapted it for her purposes. Instead of tapping her fingertips together in perfect ASL form, she taps her index finger into her open palm. Just like my car’s GPS that seems to run 50 feet off target, Little Friend gets the general idea. The other week I noticed she had added “inflection” to her “more.” Quietly snacking on crackers in her car seat, she threw up a pair of hands above her head. I caught the repeated motion in my rear-view mirror: an index finger poking into a palm. Apparently, I hadn’t “heard” her earlier requests when her hands were in the vicinity of her lap, and so she escalated her demands. She was silently “yelling” for more. Signing Time is right—the baby signs do deter tantrums.
The recommendation for Signing Time came from a friend who collects all things trendy, useful, and fun. When she says, “try this,” I try “this”, be it pediatrician, parenting technique, or shower caddy. Her own daughters love the Signing Time DVD series, even though her oldest, at four years old, has more than mastered a precocious speaking vocabulary. Watching the DVDs with Little Friend, I can understand. The songs are homey and catchy. The kids demonstrating the signs are adorable. The signs themselves are simple and useful in a toddler’s world. The segment on trains, for example, has a mixture of kids demonstrating the sign, cartoon trains, real trains, and train-ish music. When the train segment ends, Little Friend jams her index finger into her palm. “More.” Then a little hissing puff of air: “Please.”
Now if I could just get her to say “Mama”…
Signing with your child is as easy as ordering a DVD and popping it in the player. I’d recommend beginning with Signing Time’s Baby Sign Language Starter Kit. The Signing Time website offers a great video clip to get started. For a thorough explanation of the hows, whens, and whys of baby signing, turn to industry expert Dr. Linda Acredolo in her book Baby Signs. If you prefer to learn in person, Baby Signs offers classes for parents in all 50 states. In Pittsburgh, Magee Women’s Hospital frequently offers Baby Sign classes.