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The power of silent words

My son, Connor, was three years old when I first introduced him to American Sign Language. It started as a way to supplement our alphabet play. We'd sing the ABC song with fingers flashing accompaniment. Little did I know that this simple game would grow to be a valuable tool for our entire family.

I took a sign language class at the local community center and found myself looking for every opportunity to use my new skills. We were playing Red Light/Stop - Green Light/Go at the park one day when it occurred to me that the game could easily be played in sign.

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It took less than two minutes to teach Connor how to sign stop and go. The rest of the game was played in a silence that was punctuated only by delighted giggles. This was the first time that Connor stayed within my sight range for the entire game. He didn't want to miss an important word.

Soon I found myself introducing other useful signs - "yes," "no," "listen," "remember," "please," "thank you," and "good." Connor loved the idea of a secret language - a way that we could talk together privately in public.

Silent reminders to say "please" and "thank you" were met with a quick nod, smile, and a cheerful vocal "please" or "thank you." Friends commented on Connor's excellent manners. We shared private exchanges of pleasure.

I'll never forget the first time we used the sign for "It's time to go." We had been playing at the park and Connor was at the top of a slide. I was standing by the swings talking with another mom. I caught his attention, tapped my watch and gave him the sign for go. A huge grin spread across his face and he slid down the slide, ran to my side, grabbed my hand, and said, "OK, let's go." The park resonated with the sound of dropping jaws.

This was a child who usually cried at the thought of leaving the park.

The mother beside me asked, "What just happened here?" It must have seemed like magic.

Over the years our signing has improved as we've added words and phrases that fit with our new experiences. Connor is now 9 and has reached an age where a gushing mom makes him uncomfortable. Sign-gushing, however, is perfectly acceptable. During a recent school concert, I silently shouted across the auditorium, "I'm proud of you!" A beaming smile told me that he'd "heard" me loud and clear.

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We've developed an appreciation and respect for the fluidity, versatility, and subtlety of American Sign Language. We've learned that it is possible to whisper, shout, and emphasize words by varying the size, speed, and intensity of our movements. We've grown to love the sight of hands singing, reading poetry, and telling stories.

Connor's three-year-old sister, Robin, and I stopped by the school yesterday. As we passed his classroom I saw a quick flash of movement from Connor. Was that "I love you?" I wondered. Robin answered my unspoken question, "I love you, too!" her little hands shouted back to her big brother. Words that wouldn't have been spoken out loud were exchanged easily in this silent language.

Parents: To submit a first-person essay on your own parenting solutions, send an e-mail to, or write to Parenting, The Christian Science Monitor, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115.

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