When a child is very young and/or doesn’t talk much (… yet!) it seems like we (parents and professionals) suddenly seem to develop psychic abilities. Mindreading means anticipating the child’s need or what the child is going to say, and taking care of it before giving the child a chance to ask for help or say anything at all. While mindreading a baby’s needs is an important part of infant care, to help toddlers and children develop language, it’s time to put away the crystal ball.
What does mindreading look like? Here are a few scenarios:
The child is struggling to open a box of cereal. He hasn’t said a word.
MOM: Here, let me open that for you.
GRANDPA: Would you like the red car or the blue car?
The child hasn’t said anything yet.
DAD: He likes red.
A toddler reaches for her favorite stuffed animal on a high shelf. Dad hands it to him. Neither says a word.
A parent’s natural tendency is to take care of his or her child and protect the child from any pain, but when we’re too quick to jump in and meet a our children’s (perceived) needs, we actually do them a disservice for a few different reasons:
Being too quick to help cheats the child out of the chance for a “good” struggle. A little bit of difficulty is what we all need to grow. If you never have the opportunity to struggle, how do you develop your skills and learn your own strength? Without a little grit from sand, an oyster would never produce a pearl. Good things come from the right kind of discomfort. What makes a good struggle vs. a bad one, or the right kind of discomfort vs. a truly uncomfortable situation? A lot of it has to do with individual child temperament. Parents, you know your child’s limits best. The right time to jump in is right before the communication interaction goes from being a positive challenge to a negative experience. That will differ for each child — it may even differ from day to day! Work with your Auditory Verbal Therapist to read the child’s cues, and make the call that feels right to you. Know your child’s language levels and make it a just right challenge.
Speaking for the child denies the child’s ability to articulate his own opinion. If someone asks your child, “What’s your favorite color?” and the adult automatically replies, “He likes blue,” then we’ve taken away that child’s chance to speak for himself. Maybe he really does like blue, but maybe his opinion has changed in the last day (pretty common with children and favorite colors!) — let him say so! Speaking for someone is not helping him. It’s taking away his right to be his own person.
Jumping in takes away the child’s communication motivation. If I know I can rely on Dad to take care of my every need before I even say a peep, why would I? We’ve conditioned the child to be passive in his environment by eliminating any need to communicate.
Mindreading doesn’t give the child chances to self-advocate. From a very early age, we need to teach children with hearing loss age-appropriate ways to speak up for their needs. If you constantly repeat yourself because you’re not sure your three-year-old child heard you, how will she fare when she’s a thirteen-year-old hanging out with friends who has never learned ways to ask others, “I didn’t hear you. Can you say it again, please?” Self-advocacy starts in the home, and it starts young.
How can you avoid being a mind-reader?
It’s said the first step to resolving any problem is to admit you’re doing it. Take some time to really listen to yourself as you interact with your child. Sometimes it’s helpful to tape yourself on your smartphone while talking to your child and re-watch the interaction later. Do you hear yourself doing any of the mindreading mentioned above? We’re all guilty of it from time to time. The trick is not to be perfect and never mess up, just to have the knowledge and skills to catch yourself when you do.
Just wait. This is probably one of the hardest things to do, but hold back. Give your child space to struggle and time to realize a communication need. Children are smart. Trust them to figure out what they need and communicate it at a level appropriate for their developmental age.
Give options. If a child is really struggling to come up with something to say, give them choices. This way, they are still able to make their own decision. If you’ve said, “What do you want to drink?” and the child is having trouble answering, first wait, and then say, “Would you like milk or juice.” That keeps the onus of communication on the child. You can also offer suggestions of what the child could say. For example, if the child seems not to have heard you but isn’t self-advocating, prompt with, “You could say, ‘Say it again please.'”
Make observations. You can give the child a hint about the language to use without saying it for her or asking a yes/no question. Jumping in to help requires no language from the child. Asking a yes/no question requires just a “yes” or a “no.” Making an observation, “You look like you need help” models language for the child in a way that encourages her to say it on her own, “I need help,” or, “Help me.”