My father had his 90th birthday this summer. I was back in England for a month to join the celebrations. It was a wonderful honouring of my father as family and friends gathered to wish him, “Happy Birthday Gordon!”.
My father stuttered when he was a child. He reminded me of this while I was on my visit . He told me how he had trouble with certain sounds and stumbled on them and couldn’t get started to say what he wanted to say. He said his parents and family thought that mimicking him and making fun of his speech would help him to stop stuttering. Perhaps they believed that shaming him would make him decide to talk differently. It was the early 30’s and maybe we can forgive his family for their ignorance. My dad described how the ridicule upset him and didn’t help.
The power of the bond between parents and children is now much better understood. We know that a strong attachment relationship between the child and the parent(s) is the foundation for health and well-being. When parents provide a safe and secure place for a child to grow and learn the child flourishes.
We also understand how language and communication and mental and emotional health are intricately connected in early child development. A baby is born and is taken into their mother’s arms and when the mum is well and able to respond to the wonder of the small bundle she holds a magical connection begins. A renowned expert in pregnancy, childbirth and parenting (and a woman whose work I hugely admired), the late Sheila Kitzinger, has described the intensity of the love bond between the infant and mother. Mother and baby gaze into each others’ eyes, baby coos and mother responds. The cooing develops into babbling and mother is caught up in a conversation that grows within the healthy parent-child relationship. Mother listens to the sounds her baby is making and imitates them. A fascinating verbal game has begun! And as the parent and child communicate (with words, touch, gesture, closeness…) their emotional bond grows stronger. That bond goes on supporting the development of language throughout the child’s life. The father also has a role and builds his own strong attachment to his child though in different ways to the mother-child bond.
We know that life doesn’t always move in the smooth, idyllic direction described above. The mother may be unwell either physically or mentally. She may be unable to respond to her baby with the intimate closeness that starts those early conversations. Or perhaps baby isn’t healthy or has experienced difficulties being born or has been born with yet unknown challenges such as developmental delays or autism. The baby fails to send the early signals that draw mother and child into the closeness that is fertile ground for strong language and emotional and mental health to grow. For any of these reasons, in mother or child, the attachment relationship and/or communication growth can be disrupted.
The parent-child relationship is a indeed a powerful one and one which I support and encourage to thrive through therapy. When parents are involved in planning with their speech-language pathologist to reach goals they work on together, the conversation between them and their children grows stronger. Children learn language and use it to be social beings as well as to succeed in school.
My father said it was the army that “sorted him out” and cured his stutter. And maybe the regularity of life and the confidence that came with his responsibilities as a young man serving his country were the keys to his improved ability to speak fluently. There was certainly no speech therapy to help him.
I am reminded every day that I have chosen a career that allows me to provide support and appropriate strategies to families whose children need help to be the best communicators they can be. For that, I am deeply grateful.