Learning to Speak by Mary O’Connell

Mary writes:  One of my favorite texts in the LifeWays Early Childhood Training is Karl Konig’s book, The First Three Years of the Child. Konig describes the three major milestones achieved by the child that are unique to humans. It always blows my mind to think about how important the first three years of our lives are; we accomplish the things that make us essentially human and most of us can’t even remember these years in our own lives!

The task of the first year is – you probably guessed it – Walking. It seems as though every movement the infant takes during the first year is leading him toward that milestone of becoming upright and taking his first steps. Rudolf Steiner said, “In helping the child as he learns to walk, we must be pervaded by love.” This seems like a pretty easy command to follow, as the infant is such a juicy bundle of sweetness! What’s not to love? Once the child achieves uprightness, he starts to recognize that he is a separate person from the rest of the world around him, even his mother. This realization is quite earth-shattering on one level, and great fun on another. Around age one, we often see the little toddler crying despondently for his mother when she walks out of the room, only to run gleefully away from her when she is calling him to come!

This sense of separateness leads the child to her next milestone, which is Speaking. Communication is what helps the little one connect again, in a new way, to her beloved people. Steiner advises, “In helping the child to gain the power of speech we must be absolutely truthful.” Wow, that’s a powerful mandate! It’s good to take the time to reflect just how truthful we are with and around our little ones. For the child, the first part of the process of the acquisition of speech is naming. It’s so fun to see a toddler pointing and calling out the name of everything around her…. Ball!  Baby! Cookie! Dada! It’s at this earliest stage of speaking that we can begin to see how important it is to be truthful. If we show the child a picture book or give her a toy that is a crazy-looking caricature of a person or animal and then say that is a “girl” or a “dog,” we are not helping the child develop a true picture of what “girl” or “dog” are.

To foster language acquisition, of course we need to speak to our children. Our intention of truthfulness invites us to avoid mindless chatter, but rather make simple statements that are imbued with warmth and love.  Steiner warns against the use of baby talk, saying it is really a caricature of true speech.  Rhythmical verses, nursery rhymes, and simple games are very nourishing ways for the young child to practice speech in a playful way.

Some parents have asked, “Well, what about the truthfulness of Santa Claus?” This is tricky if you think of Santa on a totally analytical level. On the heart and soul level, I love one of the stories I’ve heard and shared with children about Saint Nicholas, the good, pious, real live man who was friend and helper to many people, whom legend tells us left fruit, nuts and coins for hungry people in their stockings drying by the fireplace. When I tell this story to a group of children, I feel it is absolutely true on every level, and that the tradition of Santa Claus is keeping alive the spirit of this kind, loving man who is no longer physically in our midst. When my own boys at ages 7 and 9 began to question whether the person who left things in their stocking was in fact Santa or their parents, I was able to share with them the special secret of those who keep alive the tradition of St. Nicholas, without feeling in any way I had been lying to them. The boys were excited to be in on the tradition and keep the magic alive for their younger sister. The tradition of Santa Claus gives us an opportunity to examine our own relationship to wonder and magic, and we can decide if we feel it to be true.

Finally, clear, true speech leads the child to the third fundamental task of the human being in the first three years — Thinking. Steiner says, “Our own thinking must be clear if right thinking is to develop in the child from the forces of speech.” That may be a topic for a future newsletter! Of course, I just realized this is my last newsletter here at LifeWays. Maybe Jaimmie will invite me back as a guest writer sometime! In the meantime, please know that you and your children have a special, permanent place in my heart.

Mary O’Connell has been the Director of LifeWays of Milwaukee since its founding and is stepping down this month; she will become Training Coordinator of LifeWays North America.