For nearly two years, my son didn’t talk. Not much, anyway. He said a few words: Mama. Dada. Ball. No.
But while my oldest son had been talking in complete sentences by the time he turned 1, my second son was largely mute.
In another era, he might have been described as the strong and silent type. But strong and silent doesn’t cut it in the 21st century. If you’ve become a parent in the past decade, you know what doctors and websites and parenting magazines say about a baby who doesn’t speak. In thinly veiled, or sometimes stark, terms, we’re told that a nonverbal child could have developmental delays, or an autism spectrum disorder.
So I worried. And I fretted. And I worried some more.
I read him books. Lots of them. Up to 10 at a time.
I took him to music classes in a bid to get him to verbalize through song.
We watched all of the educational classics together: “Sesame Street.” “Curious George.”
When none of that worked, we had his hearing tested. Our pediatrician, flummoxed by how silent Baby No. 2 was, convinced me he probably just had excess fluid in his ears and that one ear exam was all that stood between him and an enormous vocabulary.
But he passed his hearing test with ease. And still he didn’t talk.
It was my mother who finally calmed me down. A speech pathologist, she had listened to me during my regular calls to her at her home in Wisconsin, obsessing over what the worried doctors and judgmental moms were telling me.
She had tried repeatedly to remind me that Einstein didn’t talk as a young child either — that there are a number of documented cases showing that early talking has no connection to later signs of intelligence.
But it wasn’t until we sat together watching my son play in a hotel room the summer before he turned 2 that she finally succeeded in allaying my fears.
As he engaged in an impromptu game of hide-and-seek with my older son, my mother noted how Baby No. 2 could point and nod and shake his head. She implored me to watch as he smiled and laughed.
“You have nothing to worry about,” my mother said, smiling and clapping her hands in return.
“Your generation of parents — even this new generation of doctors — has forgotten that communication isn’t just about words. It’s about nonverbal communication, too: smiles and hugs and kisses and points of the fingers and waves of the hands. Often those nonverbal things hold more meaning than any words.”
And watching her watch Baby No. 2, I saw him through different eyes. No, he didn’t say much. But he expressed a great deal. Words weren’t the tools he chose to get his message across.
Baby No. 2 ultimately did need speech and language help, which we began soon after he turned 3. The speech pathologist assigned to work with him twice a week helped him to find his voice.
And she helped me brace myself for the world he was entering. “He’s going to be great,” she told me repeatedly. “But you need to steel yourself for the parents and teachers out there who measure a child’s intelligence by how much he talks.”
She was right. There have been those moments when, in spite of his high grades and standardized test scores, teachers have underestimated my son’s grasp of a subject because of his reluctance to speak. There have been instances when those same teachers, impressed by other children’s verbose natures, have failed to see what my son brings to the group.
He uses the time that others spend talking to observe. And he sees what others miss. He’s the one on his Little League team to spot, between innings, the beautiful endangered falcon perched in the tree, prompting all to stop and marvel alongside him at the wonder of nature.
He’s the one who puts together complicated puzzles and solves mind-bending riddles with ease, because he takes a step back and sees answers that are invisible to the rest of us. He’s the first to spot the rainbows after a storm, to spy a lightning bug in the night sky, to notify a teacher or grownup if someone is sick or sad.
This past school year, we were thrilled when he was paired with a lovely first-grade teacher who saw the deep thinker within.
“He thinks before he speaks,” she told me at parent/teacher conferences, raving about what she called his “thoughtful insights,” which she credited for sparking interesting class discussions. “He wants to make what he says counts.”
But do other children talk more? I asked.
She smiled and shrugged. “Yes. But his words are the ones that carry weight.”
At the end of the school year, the moms were preparing a wedding shower for that teacher. Before school one morning, on the week of the planned celebration, I placed a piece of paper and markers on the table beside my son’s bowl of cereal and asked him to write a nice note to his teacher about love or marriage while I finished getting dressed.
He picked up the markers and in the three minutes that I spent in the bathroom, wrote these words, unassisted:
“Love is invisible. It is hard to catch, but easy to find. For a happy marriage, remember to stay calm, take a deep breath in and a deep breath out.”
He’d never said the words aloud. They came from within. I wept as I showed my husband, not sure if we were raising a 7-year-old boy or a wise poet.
Later that week, I received calls and emails from other mothers who had seen the note, as it was being mounted in a book for the teacher. “You should be so proud of all that you taught him,” they told me again and again.
“No,” I said, shaking my head. “I can’t take credit for teaching him. If anything, he’s the one who’s taught me.”
From my often-silent son, I’ve learned, in an era in which people — including so-called political “leaders” — can’t seem to stop talking, that there’s tremendous wisdom in being the one who takes the time to see the whole picture before weighing in with an opinion, who knows just as much, if not more, can be spoken with heart and action as it can with words.
I no longer worry about Baby No. 2. He’s going to be just fine.
Mary Pflum Peterson is a mom of four. She and her husband, Dean, are raising their family in New York.
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