Lost in translation

June 12,2008
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

Instead of typing up my students' final exam yesterday afternoon, I spent the time googling "speech therapy for kids" and "how to tell if your child needs speech therapy" and then reading lots of Internet articles and advice columns, until I knew more about the topic than I ever thought I would. I'm not an alarmist by nature; worry tends to creep towards me, like a slow-moving wave in the distance. I might keep a watchful eye on it, but I don't worry too much about its approach until it's right on top of me. But we've been burned by this approach before with L., waiting too long to address concerns we'd had for quite some time--both because we just didn't know any better, and because we didn't want to be the kind of parents who jump in too early to intervene and "fix" what might turn out to be just normal bumps along the road of development.

This is what started it all, though: The other day, T. was chatting away to a new little friend of hers (a new friend for about 10 seconds at that point) in her usual chirpy, happy way and the friend interrupted her.

"Why do you talk that way?" she asked abruptly, in that brutally honest way kids have. "You talk funny," she added at the end, just to clarify her point.

I watched T. falter a bit at the question. I'm not sure she felt bad about the question itself, but I know she was taken aback by the interruption, and the implication of judgment behind it. This was the second time in two weeks that a child has questioned T. about her speech. T. being T., recovered in a few short seconds and continued on, not answering the question in the least. The other child still had the question written all over her face, but T. didn't seem to care much.

I cared about it, though. I cared about it all through dinner that evening and then continued on caring about it at 2:00 am, when I was awoken by T. running pitter-patter into our room to climb into bed with us. I know that kids will always be brutally honest about any little thing out of the ordinary, but a nagging voice (isn't that voice so hard to ignore at 2:00 am?) whispers to me: Should we do something? Should we look into this?

A few months ago I wrote that our pediatrician had suggested we wait until T. turned five to worry about her swallowed consonants and her inability to pronounce certain letters. We were fine with that, and continue to be really, except for that nagging voice that questions whether we're being remiss in waiting that long. My research the other day revealed a unanimous belief that speech issues get better quicker when dealt with sooner rather than later. But I still believe that children talk like children, and some more so than others, and that sometimes you just have to wait for all their various parts to catch up with the rest of them. Most advice websites on speech issues seem to agree that you should be able to understand your child 90% of the time by age four, give or take a few months. But they also hasten to add that all children develop at different rates. What's a parent to do, then?

The other day while I was making dinner, T. tried to relay a story to me about someone I thought was named Stan. I was busy measuring out water and couldn't understand who this Stan person was, or where she had met him. My mind searched for connections. A boy at the pool? A friend from the neighborhood? A TV character? Animal-loving Stanley, perhaps? But the more I repeated Stan's name back to T., the more upset she got, until she crumpled onto the floor in a heap of frustrated tears. L., who had not appeared to be listening in the least to our conversation that whole time, suddenly piped up in a deadpan voice from his seat at the kitchen table, "She's talking about a TV character named CHAN, Mama, not STAN." I felt terrible.

It's my daughter's feelings I'm worried about, really, not her speech. I know that she will not head off to high school still saying "fwimin'" or "tack" instead of "snack"--of course she won't. But as she's getting older, she's becoming more and more painfully aware of things; the lack of self-consciousness that most very small children are so blessed with is disappearing, and she's seeing herself more and more as others do. Children are resilient--they really are. But their small souls are not so resilient, I think. They are vulnerable to judgment, to teasing, to being viewed as different in a world that often looks askance at anything out of the ordinary, and that searches always for that weakness, the Achilles heel. 

We haven't decided what to do yet. We'll wait the summer out and see how things are when T. starts school again in September. We have learned the hard way to trust our instincts, and that it's important to listen to that little 2:00 am voice. We've learned that sometimes you have to do more than keep an eye on that worry in the distance, the shadow of concern--sometimes you just have to embrace it head-on and take what comes from it.