Hand signs can be used to communicate with toddlers not yet able to verbalize what they want.
By WILLIAM WEIR
Standing at a coffee table in the family room, 14-month-old Michaela Keen looks at a picture book and puts her hand under her chin. Michaela's mother and translator, Julie Keen, points out that this means "pig."
Since she started seven months ago, Keen has become a faithful advocate of "signing." It's the use of hand gestures to communicate with toddlers who have normal hearing, a practice that has become increasingly popular among new parents in the last few years. The idea is that children develop manual dexterity before verbal skills.
Life isn't easy for toddlers, as anyone who deals with their sudden mood swings on a regular basis can tell you. Usually, their distress revolves around a handful of basic themes: tired, hungry, thirsty, need changing. But which? Hand gestures, some say, can provide just enough information for parents to quell an impending tantrum.
Creating a rapport
Keen knows there are naysayers, but she's convinced there's something to it.
"I don't know how much to attribute this to signing, but she is a very good-natured kid," said Keen, who lives in Canton, Conn.
And, others say, it strengthens the bond between parent and child by providing some insight as to how children view the world.
"There are all these just unbelievable things that they notice, which you don't know about without a shared communication system," said Beryt Nisenson, who teaches parents how to use American Sign Language with their children.
Parents are generally encouraged to start when their child is 6 or 7 months old. But some say signing can be beneficial even after a child has begun speaking.
Could this really be just a case of overzealous parents jumping on the latest craze that promises to make little Einsteins?
Not at all, says Nisenson. It's a matter of giving children the means to say things they wouldn't otherwise have the means to.
"It seems so neat to have that kind of rapport with your baby before anyone else," said Nisenson, whose son began signing when he was 8 months old.
And then, which gestures to use?
Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn, the authors "Baby Signs: How To Talk With Your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk," are often credited for much of the popularity of signing. It started with the authors' findings that babies and toddlers make their own hand gestures for things and their conclusion that parents should build on those gestures to communicate with their children.
Some still encourage parents to use whatever gestures come most naturally to their children. But others insist that American Sign Language is a better alternative. It's a prickly issue within the community.
Nisenson stresses that her program is strictly ASL, albeit with some modified gestures to make it easier for young children.
As part of the pro-ASL faction, Nisenson argues that special gestures known only to the parents and the child severely limits whom the child can communicate with.
And if the gestures you're teaching your child are American Sign Language, Nisenson says, there's the added bonus of teaching a second language that could become useful later in life.
A lot to learn
Acredolo, a psychologist at the University of California at Davis, says she's "surprised, but sort of not," by how quickly it's gained followers. For anyone who's experienced the frustration of trying to communicate with a baby that isn't yet able to talk, she said, it's only natural that this would take off.
But be forewarned: It can be a lot of work. Mernie Berdeen of Avon, Conn., brought her toddler to Nisenson's class last March. Together they learned the sign for "milk." At the time, it was enough to keep the Berdeens moving forward with the program.
"I enjoyed it; it's an intriguing idea," Berdeen said. "But you have to be consistent and do it every time."
Though her daughter learned a few more signs, eventually Berdeen and her husband decided it took more time than they could give and dropped off.
Not Keen, who's kept at it despite skepticism from all sides. Even her husband first thought the whole thing seemed like an "earthy, crunchy" sort of fad. And then Michaela signed "daddy," and he's signing now also.
With another baby due in February, Keen figures she'll be signing for a while.
"I'll keep at it until they don't want to do it anymore," she said.