Mon July 11, 2011

Everything Has Been Pretty Good

Learning to speak doesn’t always come easy for children. But new research seems to debunk the theory that toddlers who learn to talk later than sooner grow up with emotional or behavioral problems. KUNC commentator Dr. Marc Ringel has more.

Jack, our second son, hardly said a word during his first three years of life.  This concerned us because his older brother Eli had talked up a storm at the same stages of development.  My wife and I saw no reason why the superior genetics and excellent home environment that we smugly believed had allowed Eli to set an exceptionally high performance standard shouldn’t apply to Jack too.

So we worried about our younger son.  Until at the age of three, overnight it seemed, he started talking in compound sentences strung together into thoughtful paragraphs.  In retrospect our introverted little boy had an extroverted big brother who was more than happy to speak for him, an arrangement that worked well for both children over the course of their first three years together.

Later this month the man who grew from the boy whose language skills once upon a time we’d worried were delayed, will leave Colorado to pursue a masters degree at the University of Chicago.

A report published a week ago in the journal Pediatrics puts some science behind commonsense notions about child development that had escaped my wife, a registered nurse, and me, a family doctor, while we were in the throes of raising our kids. 

The investigation, performed on children enrolled in the Western Australian Pregnancy Cohort Study, examined 1242 2 year-olds with vocabularies of 50 or more words that they could string together in 2 or 3 word phrases.  The researchers compared these kids, judged to have normal language development, with 142 others of the same age who had not achieved the same speech milestones.

At the age of two the so-called “late talkers” were a little more likely to show some behavior problems than their peers who had demonstrated more typical language development.  But, when measured again at ages 5, 8, 10, 14 and 17, the two groups had absolutely identical low rates of emotional and behavioral problems. This calls into question the theory that early frustration over inability to communicate is one of the things that can lead kids into psychological trouble later in life.

Furthermore, almost all those who lagged at the age of two had caught up in language abilities when assessed at subsequent study intervals. 

As a doctor and as a parent I have gotten a great deal of mileage from applying one of my mother’s sayings to all sorts of worries about children.  “You just have to live long enough,” Mom declares.  In other words, if you are patient, most kids will grow out of most of their problems.

A favorite story illustrates well my mother’s wise words.  It’s about a twelve year old child who has never spoken a word in his life.  His parents had consulted pediatricians, audiologists, speech therapists, neurologists, and psychiatrists, all of whom could not find a thing wrong with the boy.  By all measures, except for lack of speech, the doctors had declared Ralphie to be perfectly normal.   

Then at breakfast one day, the boy looks up at his mother and says, “This oatmeal tastes like crap.”

She jumps up, joyously proclaiming, “Oh!  Ralphie!  You can speak!  How wonderful!  But if you could talk all this time, why did you wait so long?”

To which Ralphie replies, “Well, up until now everything was pretty good.”

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