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Growing Concerns (12/07/2003)
By Dr. Martha Erickson
A question-and-answer column with Dr. Martha Erickson of the University of Minnesota

Question: We recently watched a video of when my now 4-year-old daughter was 19 months old. It was amazing how differently she acted and talked compared with my son, who is currently 20 months old. She would say, "No, Mommy!" and could sing most of "Happy Birthday." My son isn't nearly as verbal. His version of "no" is "uh-uh." I don't think we've read as much to our son as we did to our daughter, although now his bedtime routine includes books. I'm afraid he may have suffered from being the second child. Should I worry? Have I done something wrong, and if so, what can I do to fix it?

Answer: You're not the first parents to worry that a second child lags behind the developmental pace of the firstborn. Most of us find that, with subsequent children, we can never quite match the undivided attention we gave to our first baby. That doesn't mean a second child's slower pace of development is the result of parental neglect. Even within the same family, each child's development is unique. Many times a child's development is stronger in one area. For example, a child may have advanced verbal skills and weaker motor skills, or vice versa. Sometimes second children may develop language skills slowly because big brother or big sister either speaks for them or doesn't let them get a word in edgewise. And some children simply have a personality that leads them to listen and absorb conversation for many months and then suddenly begin speaking in complete sentences.

Whatever the reason for the slower developmental pace of verbal skills, it's not uncommon for a 20-month-old to have a small vocabulary. At your son's tender age, he has lots of opportunities to benefit from your love, attention and stimulation. Here are some of the things to focus on as you gently support his growth and learning:

" Talk to your son as you go through your daily activities together. Describe what he's seeing, touching and tasting.

" Use music or rhymes to help your son discover the joy of language. Clap your hands, dance around the room and repeat the same songs until he becomes familiar with them. (Before long he may start to fill in the blank if you leave out the last word of a familiar line.)

" Continue to make time to read with your son each day. Let him choose his favorite picture stories and read to him only as long as he's interested.

" Note his interests and find stories and language-based activities that focus on things he likes. For example, if he's crazy about trains or puppies or clowns, work those interests into your games and reading time.

" Create speaking opportunities for him in his daily routine. For example, when he is getting dressed in the morning, put out two shirts and ask him to choose the blue one or the red one. Encourage him to tell you if he wants cereal or toast for breakfast. (Even if he can't say the words yet, learning to understand the questions is a big part of language development.)

As stated before, each child is unique. Certainly, if you see other signs that your son is lagging developmentally, or if you see no sign of progress in his verbal skills over the next few months, talk to your pediatrician and request a developmental screening. For now, focus on providing a rich language environment for your son and watch how he responds. With luck, soon he'll master many words, including that powerful word "no." And then you may be longing for the good old days when he didn't know how to say it.

Question: My children recently broke some pottery garden sculptures in our next door neighbors' back yard, on purpose and for no apparent reason. I may never have found out, if my children hadn't told me what happened. How do I administer consequences for the vandalism without discouraging my kids from being honest with me? I don't want them to feel they'll be punished for telling the truth.

Answer: This does pose an interesting dilemma of trying to teach two important, sometimes competing, lessons: Honesty pays, and destructive acts have consequences. Handled carefully, this situation offers an opportunity to teach both lessons in a way your children are likely to remember for a long time.

At this point, the reward for your children's honesty will be pretty intangible, but important in the long run. They need to hear from you, with warmth and sincerity, that you are glad they told you the truth and you recognize it was courageous of them to do so. You might say, "It helps me learn to trust you when you are brave enough to tell me the truth even when it's something that's hard to tell me." The fact that the children confessed to you indicates they know they were wrong. Acknowledge that by saying, "I know you understand that was a very bad thing to do, and I believe you won't do something like that again."

With that said, you're still left with a destructive act that calls for consequences. To maximize your children's learning, you'd be wise to engage your children in deciding with you what they should do to make amends to the neighbors. Start by asking them, "What do you think should happen now?" If that question is too broad for them to answer, encourage them to see through the neighbors' eyes by asking them, "If someone broke something special that belonged to you, what would you want them to do?" With guidance, if not on their own, your children probably will arrive at two important conclusions: They should apologize, and they should replace the objects they destroyed.

Although embarrassing, the apology is the easy part. (Your kids may want to practice with you before they face the neighbors.) Depending on the value of the broken sculptures and the ages and earning power of your children, making restitution may be challenging. You may have to use your own money to purchase new sculptures for your neighbors, but you should work out a careful plan that allows your children to reimburse you over time for all or most of the cost. Although it may take quite a while, a portion of their allowance each week could be put in a special container. You also might give the kids opportunities to do extra household chores to earn additional money. And finally, when the children have paid off their debt, they could write a note to the neighbors letting them know that restitution has been made.

With clear, logical consequences, there's no need for angry lectures. Your children will have learned a memorable lesson about the value of property and the importance of facing the people they harm. When all is done, you can give the kids a hug and tell them you're proud of the way they took responsibility for their actions, and that you trust they won't have to go through something like that again. 


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