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Amy Ettinger Headshot

Waiting (Not So) Patiently For My Daughter To Speak

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September 2011

My daughter, who is two and a half, sits with the other preschoolers as they perform a version of "If you're happy and you know it." She doesn't clap, or stomp her feet or sing along (even though she knows every word of the song by heart).

Later, she sits with me on the floor of her room surrounded by her favorite stuffed bear and leads her own rendition. After her "imaginary circle time" she talks about her day and asks why her buddy Theo was "grabby, grabby" with the toy train.

At school she won't utter a peep. She won't say "hi" to her teacher or any direct question from an adult. She won't scream in protest when a kid cuts in front of her in line and she'll bite her lip if she falls rather than cry out. Her quiet on the playground is a black and white silent movie version of the chatterbox I see at home.

My pediatrician says my daughter's behavior is not so unusual, especially given the history of shyness in my family.

"Wait and see," she advises. "Schedule more playdates."

While I wait, I think, usually at 4 a.m. when I should be sleeping. I think about my grandfather who spent an entire school year silent after he was teased about his Russian accent. Or about my mother who tells me that she married my father in part because "he didn't care that I didn't talk on our dates. He talked enough for the both of us."

My family is made up of oddballs -- geeks who were more comfortable writing music or literature, or futzing with a computer than making friends. It's not the genetic legacy I would have chosen for my daughter, and I'm always looking for ways around it. Should I enroll her in a Waldorf school, switch doctors, change neighborhoods?

Julianna attends a co-op preschool, where I work in the classroom and witness every silent, awkward moment. I always thought it must be so painful for a shy person to navigate the world. Now I'm convinced that the phrase "painfully shy" refers to the suffering of the witness (especially the concerned parent).

Julianna doesn't utter a word to her teacher, who she knew even before we entered the classroom in September. She smiles, she nods, she hugs. She will sometimes giggle if I tickle her, but often she won't utter a sound.  If she's particularly relaxed she'll ask another child to join her tea party. But if she's nervous, she won't even answer me if I ask if she needs water.

At home she sings for hours, riffing, rapping and even making up her own songs. She's in 'flow' -- a state of play where absolutely no thought or form of speech feels off limits for her. But out in the world, she becomes another child altogether.

Attempts by other parents to help often just make the situation worse. When my daughter finally whispers to another parent they often respond with a "Wow, I've never heard her talk before." That kind of praise only makes her feel more self-conscious, and keeps her words trapped in her throat.

November 2011  
I Google "My daughter won't talk at school" and links to articles about "selective mutism" pop up on my laptop screen.  Selective mutism is a childhood social anxiety disorder by a child's inability to speak and communicate effectively in select social settings, such as school. Kids can talk and relate normally at home but then become like a raccoon in the headlights around their peers and strangers. It affects less than one percent of children and treatment usually includes psychiatric and behavioral counseling.

On chat sites for the disorder parents share stories about deciding to put their 4-year-old on Prozac. While I have often wished for a cure for my child's moodiness, I can't imagine giving psychiatric medication to a kid so young. I believe that just because we can "fix" certain aspects of our personality with medication doesn't mean we should. The side effects of Prozac for young children haven't been thoroughly researched. I learn that it stunts growth, and other effects are unknown. And if she were to go on it, it would probably be long-term. It might help her navigate the world, but it wouldn't be a "cure."

So, I look for other options.  I get sucked into research about Omega 3 acids and whether they provide a "miracle" nutritional supplement for shy kids.  At 4 a.m. I wonder if that's all that's needed -- could a change in diet make her an extrovert?

My husband, Dan, tries to reassure me that our daughter will be fine. He was tongue-tied as a kid, but as an adult he's given book readings, taught in Ivy league classrooms, and gone on the radio where thousands of listeners have heard him speak.

I wish I had his faith. I want my daughter to be "normal" much more than I ever thought. You would think that coming from a family of shy people would make me more patient. In fact, it's the opposite because I know what's at stake. I have playdate envy when I see other kids in class forming friendships, talking about their weekends at their schoolmate's houses. Maybe it's because I know what it's like to be a lonely kid, someone who has never quite fit in to any group.

Still, part of me resists the idea of trying so hard to make her conform. If there were no shy people in this world, would there be any artists or philosophers? Would anyone choose to sit in a room by themselves with a brush or a pen if they could connect to the world in another way? Don't we need introverts in this society just as much as we need extroverts?

In this age, where we are judged by the number of friends we have on Facebook, are we pushing our kids too hard to form a social network? Most days I feel like a social coordinator trying to find friends for my little girl -- other kids who don't mind a quiet peer.

Every time an adult asks Julianna a question I know she knows the answer to I am reminded of a yoga pose "janu sirasana."  It's a forward bend when you try to reach your forehead to your knee. If you push too hard, you experience excruciating pain in your hamstrings. But if you don't try at all, you'll never stretch your muscles. The stretch is supposed to cultivate patience but I can't help worrying  while I'm doing it that I'll never be able to reach my toes. My future self with be stuck in mid-pose unable to advance, in a yoga limbo. That's exactly the challenge I face while I try to help my daughter, the parental conundrum of not pushing too far vs. not pushing hard enough.

December 2011

The situation continues without improvement. I consider pulling Julianna out of school altogether and count the days until the two week break for Christmas. It will be a relief to just be around her and my family. I won't constantly be reminded that she's different from other kids her age.

Two nights before we're set to leave for a trip to see her grandparents in Southern California, my brother-in-law and sister-in-law come over for latkes and a gift exchange. As soon as they walk through the door, Julianna announces she wants to hear Johnny Cash. She spends the rest of the night serenading us to "Burning Ring of Fire" and "Johnny Yuma." I wonder for the thousandth time how this can be the same child who is so afraid of attention at school that she won't even laugh out loud.

On vacation, Julianna plays with her cousins in a Malibu mansion vacation rental. She screams with joy on the tennis courts, and performs a rhythm-stick concert for the family --"Miss Mary Mack." She talks non-stop for two weeks straight, and  I tell Dan that we will probably drop out of the co-op by the end of the month. I cannot face the other version of my daughter that only lives inside the classroom. There is a limit to what I'm willing to put her (and myself) through.

January 2012

The night before Julianna's return to school I barely sleep. I wonder if I'm doing the right thing by taking her back there at all. Will she slip back into her silent self as soon as we walk through the classroom door? In the morning, I nurse my coffee  and glance at the clock every few minutes. Julianna is antsy -- ready to get out the door and see her friends.

Midway through the morning, Julianna surprises us all by uttering her first "word" in class; she says "yeah" when the teacher asks if she's done with an art project. I want to jump up and down and praise her, but I fear that if I call attention to the talking it will stop.

The next week, she spends the entire morning talking and playing with the other kids and parents and stands up during circle time with three other kids and acts out a play where she had a speaking role. She pretends to be another child who was having trouble sharing toy trains, and repeats the lines her teacher asks her to say. It's as if a switch flipped on in her head, and as overjoyed as I am, I know I had nothing to do with flipping it.

I have no idea whether my daughter is a budding thespian, or if she's experimenting with an extroverted persona, which she'll cast-off next week. I don't know if she'll stop answering her teacher, refuse to talk to me in a crowded restaurant, or hide behind my legs when a stranger tries to talk to her.

I do know that in this age where we feel that we can medicate or parent our way out of almost any "problem", my daughter has taught me that there are things she will or won't do for herself and that there's nothing I can do about it.

In this world, where we expect immediate solutions, are we even capable of "wait and see" parenting? And if we were, what else would our kids teach us?

I still don't have any real grasp of how much I can do as Julianna's mom. But I have a new understanding that there are limits. All I can do is hope that the lesson sticks. That as my daughter grows up, I'll start getting a better sense of what role my parenting has with her, and what role she plays all on her own.