As the father of two young boys, I often find myself comparing my children – or more specifically, their various developmental milestones and how quickly they reached them. If I’m being perfectly honest, when Robert was born I didn’t really care much for milestones – I regularly scoffed at my wife as she checked his progress according to ‘the books’, or one of the many baby-related email clubs she had signed-up to. In my eyes, he would develop at his own pace and it didn’t matter whether or not he matched (or beat) the ‘average’ child.
When Freddie came along, my opinion naturally shifted. Whilst I still don’t care much for the mythical ‘average’ child, it’s only natural that I (and I assume my wife) often compares Freddie’s progress to Robert’s. Thankfully, there isn’t too much to separate them in that respects, apart from a few differences. Freddie might not be walking at 18 months (Robert started around 13/14 months), Freddie’s eating at this age is MILES better than Robert ever was – so I figure it all evens out.
But there’s one area of development that Freddie has been slower to master than I ever suspected – least of all because of the people he lives with. This area can be best explained via a joke – and explains why I often find myself referring to Freddie as ‘The German Boy’.
You’ve probably heard it before – this particular telling comes from comedian Stewart Lee in the Guardian:
An English couple have a child. After the birth, medical tests reveal that the child is normal, apart from the fact that it is German. This, however, should not be a problem. There is nothing to worry about. As the child grows older, it dresses in lederhosen and has a pudding bowl haircut, but all its basic functions develop normally. It can walk, eat, sleep, read and so on, but for some reason the German child never speaks. The concerned parents take it to the doctor, who reassures them that as the German child is perfectly developed in all other areas, there is nothing to worry about and that he is sure the speech faculty will eventually blossom.
Years pass. The German child enters its teens, and still it is not speaking, though in all other respects it is fully functional. The German child’s mother is especially distressed by this, but attempts to conceal her sadness. One day she makes the German child, who is now 17 years old and still silent, a bowl of tomato soup, and takes it through to him in the parlour where he is listening to a wind-up gramophone record player. Soon, the German child appears in the kitchen and suddenly declares, “Mother. This soup is a little tepid.” The German child’s mother is astonished. “All these years,” she exclaims, “we assumed you could not speak. And yet all along it appears you could. Why? Why did you never say anything before?” “Because, mother,” answers the German child, “up until now, everything has been satisfactory.”
Now clearly I don’t really think Freddie is German – but his attitude to speech does seem to be taking the same route as the child in the joke. For about 3-4 months now, Freddie has seemed satisfied not to stretch his vocabulary any further than this: “Mama”, “Dadda” and “Yes!”. Add to that a very pronounced (and slow) nod, and occasional shake of the head, and you’ve got Freddie’s entire dictionary.
To be fair to him (and the German child in the story), Freddie gets by perfectly happily using these terms. He can get our attention, he can answer our questions and he knows he’ll usually get what he wants via these means. I suppose the obvious ‘answer’ is that we are making life too easy for him, and not giving him any incentive to learn – and I’m sure that may be partially true. But as far as I can remember, we did exactly the same thing with Robert and he learnt at a lightning pace.
Add to that my assumption that having an older brother chattering-away would encourage him even more, and you’ll probably see why the situation has me a little vexed. What more can we do to encourage it – is he just lazy, or genuinely a slow vocal developer? At what point SHOULD we start worrying? And how can I make sure the soup I make him is just tepid enough?
Answers on a postcard please!