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Help Me Help My Child (Feb 2007)

Past cases: February 2007

Here are the cases dealt with on Ruth’s page for February 2007.

How do we make sure that Lily learns English?

This question comes from a family who live abroad with their toddler daughter. The maids do not speak English, and both parents work. They wonder if it possible to leave it to fate – obviously parents speak to her in English and she will go to an English-speaking school.

This is quite topical as, yet again, there is concern in England about parents not talking to their children and children going into school with a limited vocabulary, little use of question words and poor understanding of basic concepts. Educationalists have worried about this for years – basically if you don’t teach language, children won’t learn language. You will remember all the stuff on “wild children” – those children who wander into the forest and bring themselves up, and never learn to communicate through language?

When I was small, my parents thought they could talk to me in German and I would learn English outside with playmates. Unfortunately I talked more than them so that soon all the little Yorkshire children had a smattering of German, and I still didn’t speak English. So we started to speak English at home. And I don’t speak very good German.

It is wonderful if your children can speak another language, but if her parents want Lily to learn English, they must teach her. They need to sit with her at mealtimes and chat, watch television with her and explain what is going on – in English – and ask her what she understands, in English. When they tuck Lily up at night, they can read stories to her and check what she understands, using the pictures to give her more information.

It’s easy to believe that because a child is watching and enjoying cartoons, she is understanding the detail of what is going on. But it’s not true; for understanding you need language as well. And increasingly it is difficult for parents to find time to talk with children – parents come in late, need to relax and watch television or play computer games, pushchairs often face away from the pusher, the mobile phone calls you away from the child you are actually with. If Lily does not have enough language, not only won’t she be able to understand what is happening but she won’t be able to explain herself to others either.

There is a lot of skill involved in teaching language. Maids are likely only to use a limited vocabulary with Lily. If her parents want Lily to learn to speak English well, they must talk to her, often and in a lot of different circumstances and situations. Don’t assume she understands what you’ve said, check some of the words. Usually at about age 2, the child is learning an awful lot; use words and use gestures to expand on your meaning – so if you say, “Put the book on the table,” point to the top of the table as well; “Get your socks from the drawer,” point towards the drawer, etc. Expand what she says. so that if she says, “Lily Biscuit,” say “So Lily wants a biscuit?” Correct her sometimes. Later when she is asking and practising her question words, give simple answers but remember she is practising question words – Why? When? Where? What? etc – rather than asking for answers.

I suppose the simple answer is: talk to her in English. But you know that.

My daughter thinks that everyone else will be getting Valentine Cards; should I send her a secret one?

Being young can be very challenging. Some children care about things like this, others don’t. If your daughter is in a class where everyone talks about Valentine’s Day and there is an element of competition, it can be devastating not to receive anything [even if sneakily you believe everyone got a card from their Dad]. In another class, this will barely be a problem. Unfortunately it often feels like a popularity contest, and no cards mean you are a loser.

So does getting a card from your Mum or Dad. And yet… it is very tempting and probably a decent idea IF you won’t get found out. That means not looking guilty or proud when your daughter shows you the card, or using recognisable handwriting, or telling her sister or brother who might accidentally tell.

In an ideal world none of this would matter and your child would be proud and confident whether or not there was a card waiting on 14 February. And in real life, an awful lot of people do not exchange cards – there are whole cultures where this is not even thought of, and many many people who just think this is a way for the card people to make even more money. You could try to tell her that the world is like this and everyone else is fibbing, but if she is in a class where cards really matter, maybe you could arrange for her to get one – if your friend posts it you could hand-on-heart say it wasn’t you.

My husband’s job is taking us to another country and my son doesn’t want to come.

There are many potential solutions to this one, and none might be a particularly satisfactory outcome. You have to go; he is 14 and not really old enough to disagree. So:

  1. you force him to come with you and he eventually adjusts;
  2. you bribe him with all sorts of promises about what he can have, where you might live, how often his friends can visit or he visit them;
  3. he votes with his feet and arranges to stay with a friend’s family/you make arrangements for him to stay with a friend’s family. This could be a permanent or temporary arrangement;
  4. you arrange for him to be a boarder at a school where you now live;
  5. you arrange for him to be a boarder in the UK.

None of these solutions will be as good as persuading him to come with you for a trial period that then turns into a longer and eventually permanent stay. But that might be impossible. 14-year-olds can be very determined, especially if their parents are strong-minded too. So talk and talk and talk again. Discuss the pluses and minuses, see if any other family really might put him up/put up with him for months at a time. Allow him to have his say – he probably has very real fears about losing friendships and having to start again with everything. And try to be fair – you have to go and make the best of it, but does he? This is horribly difficult and might be the break-up of the family you have dreamed of, but can you really force a boy of that age to change everything for someone else’s career?

I just don’t know.

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