Moms and Dads can tell you about their baby’s personality from a very early date. Fussy, calm, curious, timid, bold, giggly, determined…. We get our first introductions through their earliest crying and non-crying moments, and by following their gazes and watching their moods.
Sign language provides another, more specific, very early window into mind and personality. Early communication through signing allows insights into the interests of the child, and an indication of the memories they already have.
While I knew my son was observing and taking in everything we did from early on, I hadn’t really realized that he was retaining longer-term memories in his early months. He taught me a lesson on that when he was about 15 months old.
Fish was one of his favorite signs. One of our early and favorite snack foods were the baked fish crackers. The sign for cracker isn’t so easy for a toddler, and fish were in our life, our books, and our bathtub, so we adopted the fish sign for snacks as well as the water creatures. He also knew the signs for elephant, gorilla, monkey, and giraffe.
One morning over breakfast, my son started signing fish. I got him some fish crackers. No, he indicated, that wasn’t it. He signed elephant, gorilla, monkey, giraffe, and fish. I identified them out loud as he did each, and his smiles told me I was on the right path. I asked if he wanted his books, and the smile disappeared. He signed them all again. I looked for pictures, stuffed animals, toys, but couldn’t get what he was trying to tell me.
He repeated the signs again. Then it dawned on me that he had actually seen gorillas, and all the rest, on a visit to a jungle-themed restaurant with his grandparents, about three months before. I asked him if that’s what he was talking about. His little face just lit up! We then talked about that day for quite a while, with him signing things he remembered, as I put words to it, describing the day, who was there, the colors, the sounds, the smells, the food. The conversation and story became a favorite and was repeated often for many months after that.
So I learned just how long his little memory was, even then, and that those animals and that experience had made a pretty big and memorable, impression. I followed his lead to give him more animal experiences at the zoo, and introduce him to more books about animals.
Without signs, that treasured memory of his might never have been discovered.