The Social Piece of Language: My Journey with Late-Talkers

As a parent of a late-talker, we wait on pins and needles for our children to start talking. For their words to blossom and expand, to open their mouths, to let the sounds come out, to simply trust in those words, in this very complex thing called language.

I hear this all the time from new parents on this journey, or for parents who are still waiting for their child to talk, especially as children turn three or four or five, and those parents might still be waiting… that feeling of, sometimes, desperation that comes with this simple, yet scary question:

“When will my child start talking?”

So much of our focus goes into that time, that moment. So much of our energy and worry and hope, as parents and professionals, is all focused on that one moment, if you will.

For us, for Kate, that moment wasn’t until she turned four. Her first functional word (“no”) wasn’t until she was 37 months and after that she had only a handful of words by the time she turned four (“baby” and “daddy” were two of the big ones). But she got there, she hit that “talking” milestone, the moment where she decided to open her mouth and try to talk, even as uncomfortable as it was that her words weren’t perfect. Not long after she hit her first language burst and we were off to the word-races.

You’d think that would be the end of the story. You’d think that, “Hey! She’s talking now, it’s all good, right?”

Well… no. You’d be wrong.

You see, the journey doesn’t end when the words start coming. In fact, it’s really just the start of the journey and this part here, what happens after the language burst, it’s not something I’ve heard a whole lot about. I’d really like to share this next stage in the journey for other parents out there, and for parents too who might be so focused on ‘when the words come’ that they might be disappointed when they see that the journey’s not over yet.

And hey, maybe what I’ve experienced won’t be the same for you and your child (that’s certainly not a bet I’m willing to take). Maybe your child will just start picking words up and language and will fall back into the crowd with her same-age peers and be caught up in no time.

Or, maybe not.

If not, you’re not alone. There are other families out there navigating this different world when your child doesn’t fit into any one box… or if your child decides to say, “the hell with boxes…”

And they just sit on top of that damn box.

Your child might be autistic, and there’s such a range in that spectrum alone that your journey will look different from ours. Or maybe your child was just slightly delayed with the language, or maybe they’re even like Kate who has both a receptive and expressive language disorder. Regardless, you’ll have your family on your side, your professionals backing you up as you go (professionals you trust and that fits your family and your child’s needs, of course).

This is just me, sharing what Kate’s process has looked like as she moved from “just talking” into that other really complex part of language…

The social piece of language.

Kate is turning five next week and her language is about where a normal three and a half year-old is at. Which is just super awesome. She’s making leaps and bounds with language, starting to work on her grammar, adding it in naturally as her sentences have moved into three and four words at a time. She is communicating with so many people, different moms and dads, kids her age, younger, and older. She’s my little social butterfly and just today, after I told her we were meeting new friends at a park, she goes right up to this new mom, who she’s never met before, and holds out to show her Twilight Sparkle from My Little Ponies (I imagine Kate said something like, “Rarity,” which is her word for all of the ponies). Then she’s off and playing with this new girl, saying, “Hi” and waving and running after her.

It’s a beautiful thing, one I never get tired of seeing. It has lost sparkle yet, and I don’t think it will any time soon. I feel such pride and awe when I watch her interact and play. Holy shit have we come far. Holy shit have we all worked hard (and played!) to get to this point.

She has worked hard.

But at the same time, amidst all this progress, there’s a shift occurring with language, with this age range of children.

We are a homeschooling family, which at this point, with how old my kids are, means we just play. We play a lot. We go to the park, we’re out in danger, we’re swimming.

We’re constantly inviting friends over and having one-on-one play dates with other families. Those other kids are simply fantastic with Kate. They know her language is delayed, that she’s still learning to talk, and they have a tremendous amount of patience for her (this, though, would not have been possible if not for the awesome parents involved, who have talked with their own kids to help them understand).

Kate is also a bit towards the younger end of our particular age group, which ranges from late four to seven years of age. Most often, if there are little ones around (like Eric’s age of two or younger), they’re a sibling of an older child.

Okay, you’re thinking, big deal.

Well, actually, believe it or not, it is a big deal.

There’s a developmental shift that starts happening, especially in that five and six years of age. Not that I’m an expert, this is straight-up just from antecedes and what I’ve personally seen, but there is a social change that happens.

The social play, the language, gets more complex (certainly for girls; I’ll throw that little caveat in there: what I’m talking about here is mostly for girls). They want to play house or salon. They want more rules. They want their fellow play-mates to do certain things and they expect those playmates to also suggest ideas of their own. There’s not as much patience for someone to respond to a phrase or request. It’s like, they expect this almost rapid, instantaneous response.

This is something that my child, with a receptive and expressive delay, can’t keep up with.

And also, there may not be a whole lot of kindness and grace in these five and six year olds, as they wait for the other child, who is thinking through what they heard, trying to form a response, or, if they even understood. Again, it feels like a developmental stage, especially compared to a child who is 9 or 10, like the mother’s helper I have coming over to who play with my kids, and she has an incredible amount of patience.

The stage that Kate is in right now, for language, is mimicking and repeating. She repeats everything. Seriously. And it’s fantastic! I mean, that’s a huge part of learning language: practicing the words and phrases you hear. Kate does this with me, Grandma, other adults, and other kids.

But sometimes that’s not always understood, and sometimes, it can seem hurtful.

We had a friend over at our pool and this girl told me, “Kate’s copying me.”

Well, yes, yes she was. That’s what she does. I explained that Kate was learning language and that’s why she was repeating after her. I told her that Kate repeats after me all the time. But it wasn’t enough to ease this girl’s worries and I didn’t realize until later why: where she was at, developmentally, was a completely different stage than Kate.

When other six and seven year olds repeat you, when they copy what you’re doing, it’s because they’re being mean.

My jaw dropped on that one.

Of course! How could I have forgotten?? (Well… it’s been a really long time since I was seven, that’s why.)

But knowing this now, having this information, it will help me respond in the future. How to reach out to other kids, who might think that Kate’s being mean (because again, she’s five and not the three and half she’s at with language).

Again, this is not to pick on or point out that the other kids are just mean at this age and to run for the hills and avoid play-dates until the kids magically start being kind again (there’s nothing magic about parenting, let me tell you). Yet knowing and understanding where the other kids are at, developmentally, this has helped me to respond better. The more knowledge I have, the better I’m able to help guide Kate — because even though she’s talking, guys, guess what? She still needs my help. She still needs me to step in, to guide her in what’s being asked, or to hug her while she’s upset because she needs to share her “house” with other kids (in this instance, the house was part of the playground structure).

For the record, Kate’s at the stage of ‘why the hell do I need to share???’ So even though she’s only talking at a three and a half year-old level, she still has the developmental feelings of a five year-old! Good times, let me tell you.

I’ve noticed too, with the older kids, and kids her age, they may not have as much fun when they play with Kate. If we have someone come over, especially to the house where there’s toys, they lose interest in the kind of play Kate wants to do. Her play is still at the simple stages, especially with dolls or playing with her Calico Critters or My Little Ponies. Pretending that a critter gets hurt and needs a “doctor.” Or purposefully falling down and saying, “he died.”

It’s simple play still, and pretty darn boring for the other kid (or, to be honest, me as the parent).

I mean, it’s totally fine if Kate busts out the WiiU and starts playing Splatoon or Yoshi or Mario Kart. In those moments she’s generally the one with the more knowledge and shows the other kids what to do.

But when it comes to language, to the social side of it, the kids her age are moving into much, much more complex areas, into deeper waters, and she’s still just having fun running around in the shallow end.

Which, by the way, is totally fine.

It’s just means that, as a parent, I’ve needed to adjust. I’ve shifted my approach, to friends and playmates, for her. It’s changed because she, and the other kids, have changed.

We still meet and see these older kids, but we’re often swimming or at the park or playing at our favorite creek, areas where the focus is on the physical play and not the in-depth social side.

In fact, I saw this happen just recently with an older girl, who just turned seven. Incredibly sweet, super excited to meet and play with Kate, but after a little while I could tell she wasn’t enjoying the play with Kate as much because of that communication barrier. But when the play turned to the physical, fun kind of play, the mood shifted entirely.

Part of that was giving the girls time, to meet each other halfway (it was either that or be bored), but the other part was my stepping in and engaging in play… and ironically, play that was focused on Eric.

One thing I’m still working on as parent is to let go the ‘parent side’ and just play with my kids. I can’t tell you why, but play can be a hard, hard shift for me to make. Thankfully, my little Eric responds best to this kind of play, silly fun and simply play, and guess what?

The second I start going with Eric, Kate is rushing on over.

I started a game on a little swinging bridge at the play structure, where I pretended to catch Eric’s toes. Well, about two minutes of that, of his silly laughter and my funny words, and there’s Kate.

Another minute later? Yep, the seven-year-old is asking to play too.

We all had a blast. Seriously, I had so much fun, just letting go and playing and being silly (you’d think I’d remember so the next time it wouldn’t be such a big effort to shake that being-a-mom-thing). And when Eric tired of that game, I watched this physical play, for Kate and this other girl, continue. It involved another little brother and then yet another child.

Play is infectious.

And seriously, get an adult actually playing? The kids come running to join in.

And if we do see kids her age, I might invite only one or two families along. If it’s two families, I often make sure there’s a younger child there so when the older ones go off and bond and play, there’s someone who Kate can still interact with. Or I just invite one family with one older child. It sounds simple, but it makes the world of difference for the kids involved. It helps them connect, all on their own, and find a way to interact so everyone has fun.

Another change I’ve seen in Kate is her absolute enjoyment playing with younger kids. I’ve watched as she continually chooses to not play with the kid her age (or a year older) and instead play with children who are three years old. She follows them and mimics them, they mimic her, and there’s so much laughter involved. This simple kind of play, man, she gets so much joy in it. One time I watched as her and this little boy, just two months older than Eric, made their way from rock to rock at the tide pools, how they would laugh hysterically when a wave hit them.

It was special.

So, I’m following Kate’s lead in regards to social play. And really, that’s what this whole journey has been about: following her lead.

I’m moving away from play dates with only her peers, to the younger ones. How one week, at the local creek, she followed this one mom and her 20-month-old boy around. Later this mom told me, “She’s so good with him.”

Again, special.

Our kids don’t need to be “normal.” They don’t need to fit into any one shape or size or colored box. They are, in fact, telling us what they need, what they want, if we’re aware enough to listen.

Often, as parents, we might need to shift. Shift our expectations, shift our way of doing things, especially as our kids outgrow one way and start heading in another direction. That’s what I’ve seen so far with language, at least language involving little girls. I imagine Eric’s experience will be totally different and yet, in some ways, very similar.

As the social complexity and expectations have grown, Kate is finding her place and her joy among the little ones. It’s beautiful and something I treasure dearly. To think she might have long-lasting relationships with a two-year-old, someone that might see Kate as a very special friend as they grow up.

My late-talkers are a gift and a treasure. It’s not an easy path, especially since we’re figuring things out as we go, certainly as we’re moving forward into new this new territory, but as we do I hope to reach out to other parents and say: this journey doesn’t have to be so lonely and scary and dark.

Your journey, your path, is yours and yours alone.

It’s one you and your family, your children, will make and it will be so incredibly unique and different, just as your kids are unique and different. And while many of us have worried and wondered and fretted about when our kids would start talking, it’s also still a journey, one that could be over shortly, or one that will never fully be over.

The choice we have, as parents, is the mindset we bring with us. Worry and fear, or joy and love?

I will do my best, every day, every moment, to chose joy and love. I don’t always succeed, but I’ll try, and try again. All I have to do is look at their smiling, joyful faces to see the blessings I’ve been given. And every day will be a new experience. I’ll keep learning, keep seeing where this language journey takes Kate, and then Eric. We will surround ourselves with friendships that continue to help them blossom and grow. For now, that means making a shift in our play, in the ages and groups we’re playing with, but making those shifts and changes, it’s really what parenting is all about… whether you have a normal child or one who sits on top of that box.

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