Is Your Kid a Late Bloomer? Read This. Feel Better.
“TOOTIE MAMA!” David shrieked, pointing at the television, where Cookie Monster was spewing crumbs and belching behind his furry blue hand. “Awa a tootie too!” he exclaimed, turning to me.
“You want a cookie too?” I confirmed. “OK, let’s go.” He pounded toward the kitchen and bounced in front of the fridge.
“Mama tootie! Mama tootie, Mommy!”
“Milk and cookies? Sounds good.”
David was nearly three, and thanks to him we were all bilingual at our house. Tootie Mama was Cookie Monster, but mama tootie was milk and cookies. Nah-nee was banana, nah-noo was noodles, noo-noo was music, nee-nee was sneaker, no-no was donut, noo-nee was excuse me. Got it?
David was a late bloomer: late to sit, late to crawl, late to stand, late to walk. In each case, just as the pediatrician was reaching for her list of therapists, he would jump to the next level without warning. One afternoon sometime after his first birthday I had two friends over for tea, and left David with them while I ran out to pick up his older sister from preschool. When I returned his honorary aunts greeted me accusingly: “You didn’t tell us he was crawling!”
“He’s not,” I said.
“Yes, he is!” they insisted.
“No, he’s really not,” I countered, thinking what do they know, they don’t have kids. I was tired of my own impatience with his leisurely development style.
“O-kayyy…” they subsided. “Sure looked like crawling.”
I went into the kitchen to make more tea, then popped my head out to ask who wanted another cup. David crawled across the rug toward me, grinning.
“He’s crawling!” I shrieked. My friends rolled their eyes.
It’s funny to remember how much we discussed his motor skills, now that he moves around like any other kid his age. How impatient we were! How quick to anxiety! We look back with the smug complacency of hindsight. What were we so worried about?
It was a more complicated picture with language. There were no quantum leaps for David in speech. It was a motor issue, we were told, just like all his other delays. The undeveloped muscles of his mouth and throat were the culprits in his inability to make a “k” sound, a hard “g,” a sibilant “s,” or any sound involving a consonant blend. His sister Clare was Da, his Gran was Nah, his friend Oliver was Awawa. Final consonants were beyond him.
“Early intervention,” said the pediatrician. So we called in the caseworkers, got him evaluated, sat in meetings to determine just exactly how far behind he was. He was granted two visits a week with a speech therapist, courtesy of New York State. He blew bubbles, switched from sippy cups to straws, practiced on a graduated set of horns, each slightly more of a challenge to toot. We paid attention to lip-rounding, played kissing games, repeated his words back to him slowly and clearly.
I will never know if we really helped him in any way. In an earlier, simpler era, perhaps no one would have commented on his unintelligibility. But I also know kids whose tantrums became volcanic when their cognitive abilities began to outpace their communication skills, who quite literally beat their heads against the wall when they failed to make themselves understood. If we did nothing but diffuse some frustration, maybe that was time well spent. When he did finally learn to speak clearly, I didn’t want his first utterance to be: “Why didn’t you guys do something?”
In the end, it all came together for him: over the course of a week, just before his fourth birthday, that elusive hard “c” was tamed. Our Honda was finally a car, not a tar. We celebrated, thanked the therapist, and said goodbye. Within a month or two most of the other consonants fell into line. We congratulated ourselves—the therapy seemed to have been a good idea, and it ended before David was aware enough to think of it as anything but special playtime with a nice lady in a room full of toys.
A few months later at our parent conference, David’s preschool teachers asked how the therapy was going.
“It’s over!” we told them, triumphant but puzzled—hadn’t they noticed the difference?
“Really?” they said. “He’s clearer now, it’s true, but we’re concerned about his ability to express himself verbally.” Express himself verbally? He was four. But we pride ourselves on being the kind of parents who are responsive to teachers’ suggestions. Back to therapy, where he described picture cards and played guessing games, and we fought a nagging feeling that our better judgment had been hijacked. When we said goodbye a second time, it was with relief.
There didn’t used to be such a clearly defined curve, or so many parents who worried their offspring were behind it. When I was in preschool, plenty of kids sat with their legs bent out to the side like the letter M, and no one panicked about their muscle development or their athletic future. No one clucked about “low tone.” We were children, not pianos.
At five, David sat like that a lot. He also hit baseballs and golf balls far enough to elicit raised eyebrows from onlookers, practiced imaginary lay-ups at the dinner table, and ran football plays until it was too dark to see. I didn’t worry about his athletic future. I worried about keeping up with him.
So much of parenting is faith. That squalling newborn really will make it through the night some day. No one starts kindergarten in diapers, or sucking on a pacifier, or sleeping in a crib. The first time around, though—even the second—you waste a lot of energy wondering, but how? What should I do? What am I not doing? How can I make it happen sooner?
With our daughter, it was reading. As a kid, I took a book into the bathtub every night and then balanced it on the faucet while I brushed my teeth. Clare followed a different path, and for a while it seemed to head in the opposite direction. For one thing, she wasn’t into stories: she needed facts. When I read the “Little House” books to her, she couldn’t have cared less about Mary and Laura, but when the narrative paused for a detailed description of how to make maple syrup or build a log cabin, she was riveted. Her shelf gradually filled with books on volcanoes and the life cycle of the honeybee.
She wasn’t interested in reading on her own, though, and her fondness for data made it harder. Her comprehension was racing ahead of her skills: the books she could actually read by herself were stultifyingly basic. Better to let me do the reading, so she could soak up new information and avoid the embarrassment of a mistake. She was in good company in kindergarten, but as her classmates graduated to chapter books, she lingered behind. First grade, second grade—each year we asked her teachers if there was cause for concern, if there was anything we should be doing at home. And, bless them, each year they smiled reassuringly and told us not to worry. Teaching Clare to read was their job. We could leave it to them.
In their wise hands, Clare bloomed on her own time, without ever sensing that she was late. We (with some effort) kept our mouths shut, and by the middle of third grade, thanks in large part to Roald Dahl and Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, she could open a book and disappear, just like I used to, leaving only her body behind.
But some challenges don’t resolve by themselves. Parenting is also about staying one step ahead, clearing obstacles before a child trips and falls flat. The tricky thing is knowing which obstacles need clearing, and which seem bigger from a distance than they will once you draw near.
In kindergarten David was Mr. Gusto, always eager to join in, lighting up the room with enthusiasm. He was happy with his friends and teachers, they were happy with him, and wonder of wonders, he was reading spontaneously, blessedly free of the self-consciousness that had plagued his sister. Sure, the pencil was not his friend, and drawing and writing were chores for him, but it was kindergarten. Plenty of time.
Toward the end of the year, one of his room teachers called to schedule a parent conference. “We hope both of you can make it,” she said. “We’ll be joined by the division head, the reading specialist, and our school psychologist.”
Yikes. Where I came from, a meeting like that meant Serious Problems. Our last conference had been a love-fest. Why the big guns all of a sudden? On meeting day, we squeezed into the tiny kindergarten chairs with a mixture of trepidation and irritation. Was something really wrong? Or was this going to be another instance of goosing the late bloomer?
The six women arrayed before us were an intelligent and articulate group with about a hundred years of experience between them. They made it instantly clear that they “got” David and loved having him around. We relaxed. They complimented his rich vocabulary, his critical thinking strategies, his ease with numbers. We beamed. He had a bright future; they were thrilled at the prospect of watching him grow up. We really liked these people.
Then came the concerns. He bumped into things. He had trouble organizing a drawing on a page and staying within the lines. His handwriting had improved, but it was still an effort. He was distractible. He fidgeted until he fell off his chair. He should be evaluated by an occupational therapist for fine and gross motor skills, and sensory integration issues.
Having already decided that we liked these people, and no longer worried about whether David would be welcomed back next year, we listened carefully. We accepted the business card of the therapist they recommended, and promised to schedule the evaluation without delay. We were all on the same team, with the goal of smoothing David’s path in first grade. Why allow small concerns to grow and threaten his confidence?
The therapist, Vanessa, had a raspy voice and a mischievous twinkle and a zipline in her office. She laid out her findings with a straightforwardness that put me at ease. Despite his prowess with a bat and ball, David was a little floppy in the middle, and that mild weakness was affecting the way he held his arms and upper body and used his fingers, which in turn made writing and drawing more of a challenge. She recommended a few sessions to work on muscle strength and better techniques for using a pencil or scissors. “He’s a smart kid,” she said. “He’ll pick this stuff up quickly, and it’ll make things a lot easier for him.”
As long as I didn’t focus too hard on her written report, full of terms like “trunk and shoulder girdle” and “distal precision control,” her advice made sense to me. On the way home I explained to David that Vanessa would teach him stuff that would make first grade more fun. He nodded eagerly, and, it seemed to me, with some relief. Maybe the enemy pencil had been getting to him more than I realized. Or maybe he just wanted to try the zipline again.
So over the summer David climbed through obstacle courses and shot velcro-tipped arrows and dug pennies out of a wad of putty and practiced handwriting. Being a blithe child who doesn’t dwell much on the why of things, he never questioned our trips to Vanessa’s office. At summer’s end we agreed to check in with her once first grade was underway.
We were lucky: David had a ball, Vanessa was a pro, and our insurance covered some of the expense. He started school with no sign of pencil-dread. But it was hard not to wonder: Was any of it really necessary? Was David really sliding inexorably toward a spiral of frustration and self-doubt? Or would he and the pencil have made their peace in good time, once his “core strength” had caught up? Conventional wisdom says that the range of normal development narrows around the age of nine—by the end of third grade, everyone has basically bloomed. If I had a crystal ball, would it show me a third-grade David who was less of a klutz and had decent handwriting, even without occupational therapy?
But then I hear the voice of my friend Lauren, who chose not to send her speech-delayed toddler to therapy, and then found when the boy reached middle school that he had trouble with composition. Being late to speak, he had lost years of practice in expressing himself verbally. Maybe David’s preschool teachers weren’t off base after all. No one likes to hear that their child needs help, but dented pride shouldn’t get in the way. Therapy is not the sole province of neurotic parental overachievers.
Remember “Leo the Late Bloomer”? A wonderful picture book, published the year I was born. “Leo couldn’t do anything right,” it begins: he can’t read, write, draw, can’t eat neatly, never speaks. His mother, wise woman (actually, she’s a tiger), is serene in her conviction that he’ll get there; his father is not so sure. “Patience,” his mother counsels. “A watched bloomer doesn’t bloom.” And then, of course, “in his own good time,” Leo blooms, gloriously. And when he does, his first triumphant utterance is “I made it!”
Yesterday afternoon David’s teacher called to say he is still struggling with pencils and scissors. When he’s asked to write a story in writing workshop, he makes up a really short one to minimize the writing. His not-so-nimble fingers are getting in the way of his imagination. It’s time to go back to the therapist again.
I would like to be as wise, and as serene, as Leo’s mother. With Clare, it was the right approach. My faith in David’s eventual triumph is unshaken, but for him to finish blooming, I’m starting to understand, patience alone may not be enough.
Photo by Antonio Machado
Follow us on twitter@thefastertimes
- 1 First Openly Straight Figure Skater Comes Forward
- 2 Brooklyn Man Now Living Entirely Off Own Beard Garden
- 3 “Cra Cra” Now Official Diagnosis in New DSM (DSM-5)
- 4 OfficeMax Marketing Director Struggling to Make Staplers ‘Sexy’ and ‘Conversational’
- 5 Homeless Guy Woos Silicon Valley VCs with Low-Tech Crowdfunding Startup
- 6 Area Man Tailors Life To Be More Relevant To His Hulu Advertisements
- 7 Fan Banging Furiously on Glass Could Be the Difference in Hockey Playoffs
- 8 Survey: 88% of Eagles Fans Too Drunk To Spell Nnamdi Asomugha Last Season
- 9 Attorney Actually Starting to Believe Own Bullshit
- 10 Local Mom Won’t Stop Being First Person to Like Every Goddamn Thing Son Posts to Facebook