The Incredible Communication Learning Machine: A tale about a parenting obsession

The Incredible Communication Learning Machine: A tale about a parenting obsession


Who remembers the PC game called The Incredible Machine?

If you were raised in the 90’s, and had access to a PC, you mostly likely played this game. Most probably at school during “computer classes” when you were supposed to be doing typing exercises, but instead had a separate window opened with the game in the background. This game’s purpose was essentially to create a series of Rube Goldberg Machines.  If you’re not familiar with a Rube Goldberg Machine it’s a contraption that performs a simple task in a very complicated way. The game provided endless hours of fun!

Anyway…you’re probably wondering why I’ve taken you down nostalgia lane. Hit play. (I promise it’s worth it!)

I love watching this video of Charlie explaining her Rube Goldberg Machine (which she constructed all on her own. So proud!), because it’s hard to believe that a mere four years ago I thought her only form of communication was through a series of cries and squeaks. Quite a difference from the mile-a-minute chatty girl she in the video. I laugh at myself sometimes because I was so worried about her learning to communicate. I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but parenting leads to obsession…

…and this was my parenting obsession.  

From the moment Charlie was born I had a goal. (Keep the tiny human alive!)  My goal was to develop language and communication skills instantly. Tall order, I know considering she was literally a minute old. But this thought had been brewing in my head for nine months and it stuck. I was obsessed. I wanted to start communicating with her as soon as humanly possible. I wanted to know EVERYTHING about her. What she was thinking. What she was feeling. What she wanted. What she needed. What she liked. What she disliked. Why she wasn’t sleeping. What was making her cry. What was making her smile. What was fascinating on the ceiling. What was going through her mind. 

Did she dream? What did she dream of? Does she know who I am? Does she recognise my voice? Does she recognise my face? Could she really tell me from another person?

Yep, I was obsessed with my child.

I read textbooks and articles on baby cues. I downloaded child development apps. When she was two months old, I hauled her for an hour in an Uber to the other side of Beijing to take an introductory baby sign language course. I baby signed and signed and signed as much as I could, teaching her “Mum”, “Milk” and “More” I devoured anything written about child development—they all said reading aloud is key to promoting language. This is something we had been doing since she was two hours old. I remember drifting in and out of sleep in the hospital the first night she was born and seeing my husband reading her one of his sci-fi novels. It was the sweetest moment ever.

Until one morning when she was about five months old I heard “Mum-mummm-ummm-mumm!” THIS WAS THE SWEETEST MOMENT EVER. I was feeling groggy from the millionth hour of having broken sleep since, well, pregnancy. But this sound, this utterance…it woke me. It shook my core with excitement. She was talking! My baby, the smooshie blob that my husband and I created, was TALKING! (Ahhh…new mothers, gettin’ excited about literally anything their new child does, amiright?)

I picked her up and inhaled her scent, as I always did every time I was near her. It was glorious. I loved her new baby scent. “Good morning, little Pipsqueak! Are you calling for me?” I beamed at her and she looked at me with those beautiful, big eyes and I melted. She was a human and my human’s first word was “Mum!” I obviously took it as a clear sign of me being the favourite (Ha!). My husband will argue that she was simply babbling, but I was not accepting this. She said “Mum” and that was that.

But then she didn’t say it again for a really long time. Instead, she developed what my husband and I called the “Doon, doon”. It didn’t matter if we were asking a question, making a statement, playing with her, or being stern…all her responses were “Doon, doon”. She would play with other kids and have conversations with them saying “Doon, doon, doon?” When we traveled (this child has traveled a lot!), flight attendants would find her so amusing, “Hello there!” they would greet, and she would reply, “Doo-oooon, doon!” with a wave. She would even have conversations with herself  while playing alone or looking in a mirror, and her intonations changed depending on what she was trying to express. She would mimic our words and translate it into “Doon”. It was her own private language. After a while we found it adorable, and in her own little way she was expressing ideas and exploring emotions. She was our miniature, cuter version of Hodor (without the horrible Game of Thrones backstory and magical body possession, of course).

While “Doon, doon” was great, it still caused many, many frustrations because she was clearly trying to tell us things but we would still have to guess what exactly she wanted. Then when she was 10 months and finally signed “Milk” our lives changed…This was it! We had a way to communicate where we didn’t have to guess what she was trying to say. She signed “milk”. I  gave her milk. She drank it. Everyone was happy. I started signing more and more words with her, and soon pretty much everything we did we incorporated baby sign language. Songs and chants were even more fun!

It was also around this time that the “Doon, doon” started to wane. I was surprisingly really sad about this. With every new phase your child enters, you say goodbye to the baby. My husband and I decided from the beginning we were one and done…and so this was it—our only chance to enjoy the infant stage. It was coming to an end and all of a sudden it felt as if it only lasted a few days. But I knew we were about to enter a new phase. I was so excited for this phase. I had been working at Kids’ Planet Hutong for years learning valuable skills, tricks, and researching resources. I had also been studying to become an early childhood teacher, but really it was impromptu Mama Training. Toddlerhood was going to be where I shined as a mum.

So, toddlerhood was upon us and that meant a new phase of language development (among a series of other developmental gains, of course). This was my goal after all. She was about to develop a voice and along with this voice was emergent self-awareness, agency and independence. It would mean that she would start recognising her likes and dislikes and form her own opinions. She would start recognising if she felt uncomfortable, frightened, or frustrated. She would start recognising her family and gain a sense of belonging and security. And of course, she would start understanding what the word “love” truly meant—not only would she begin feeling love, but she would feel us loving her. Thus, helping her to develop into a resilient and confident young girl, because she would feel secure and self-assured. And with that, always feel comfortable to use her voice and express her ideas. More important, she would begin standing up for herself.

Now, we fast forward to four years old. Gone are the days of trying to guess what she’s trying to say. Again, it seems a bit silly now to have been so obsessive about Charlie learning to communicate, because I realised (well, I learned through the brilliant* Dr. Montessori) that this Wild One has always communicated with me, even in utero. Because I have always communicated with her. When I was pregnant I sang songs and if I stopped she would kick rapidly. I shone a flashlight on my belly and she would wriggle towards the light. I would eat something delicious and she would wobble around (kinda like she does now when she eats ice-cream). I realised that communication has always been solid between us. 

According to Dr. Montessori, the way in which parents respond to babies cues in the early stages of infancy translates to emergent communication skills later in early childhood. As parents, it is imperative that we do not assume what our babies need when they cry, because this tells them they are not valued when their cues are misunderstood. It’s been well documented that babies communicate by crying, and each need is signified by a cry that differs in tones (Just in case you needed a reminder because parent-brain is real.) I’ve heard time and time again, “Babies all sound the same when they cry”, but my time as a nursery teacher at Kids’ Planet Hutong has given me a special super power that enables me to recognise a (most!) babies’ specific needs. 

Don’t panic!

You will also gain this super power. You simply need to watch and listen to your baby and respond positively. You will learn to recognise your baby’s cues, and how you respond to these cues will determine the progress of your child’s language development. So, the point here is…respond positively and in a timely manner to your child’s cues and it will foster feelings of value and self-worth.

But fostering communication skills is a double-edged sword.

On one edge, I’m not going to lie, sometimes I wish I hadn’t encouraged her to voice her opinions quite so loudly, because it’s often a struggle when she has an opinion on everything. I just want her to eat her dinner, or put the jeans on, or put sunscreen on, or let me use the red crayon without argument. But that’s Fournado…it’s hard, so, so hard. The days and nights can be long difficult. But the method remains the same. Respond to her cues positively, and she will remain positive.

But on the other edge, her communication skills show us that she definitely possesses value and self-worth.

She shows us every day that she is confident and self-assured. From the way she speaks, to the things she says, in the way she confidently retells stories she’s heard, read, or watched. She enjoys making her own stories and creating worlds. She sings constantly and dances the day away. She definitely walks to the beat of her own drum—sometimes very literally. She loves The Lion King, science, Frozen and queens, in that order. As you can see, she loves to build. Everyday she builds something new. She’s industrious and resourceful, and anything and everything has the potential to be constructed. Language is always present in her play—that is, there is always a story, a reason, a purpose to each creation. 

I truly believe this edge is the sharper edge. 

It’s the edge that gives her a voice. A big, loud voice. That enables her to speak and be heard. We all know that it is very important to let children explore and communicate their emotions, as well as explore the things that make them feel comfortable or uncomfortable. Because the sooner they recognise these feelings, the sooner they can develop agency and start advocating for themselves. They will understand what it means to be respected, and be respectful. To steal a quote from Sven of Arendelle, “You feel what you feel and your feelings are real.”  Don’t deny your children of learning that they are allowed to have bad days too. So, let your children have a voice and always encourage them to speak up. 

If Charlie has something on her mind I want her to say it. And if it’s wrong, impolite or just strange, it doesn’t matter, because that’s how she learns. My husband and I will always be there as her moral compass and guide her to make good decisions…”Just do the next right thing. Yep, that’s from our good friend Anna, also of Arendelle! (We really love Frozen. And yes, I broke out into song when I wrote that! Click on the link, you know you want to.)

So, here we are at the conclusion of my parenting obsession.

Much like Charlie’s Rube Goldberg Machine, I metaphorically jumped over the fire, aka newborn phase, and headed straight for obsession, then knocked over the proverbial ball of, the sometimes confusing and frustrating, baby cues, which rolled and rolled and rolled into the baby sign language phase, and then crash landed into the sensitive period of language pit, and got hit with a drumstick of realisation…

…I took a series of long, and at times, complicated steps to perform the simple task of helping my daughter foster effective communication skills.

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