Posted by: Ticktock | November 21, 2009

Time Magazine Vs. Over-Parenting

Many people questioned my criticism of sign language for infants in my last post. Let me try to reframe my statements so that my intentions are interpreted as I mean them to be. Sign language is a skill that is encouraged by well-intentioned parents. Their children may very well be enriched by the experience. Signing will most certainly not harm children (other than possible language delay), but the evidence is mixed as to it’s overall benefit [abstract].

While those parents who point to the potential value of signing  are certainly valid, their disagreements are not relevant to my argument that baby signing for children who are not deaf is an unnecessary skill that has been marketed to parents who are eager to nudge their children toward success.

I am no more disapproving of parents who sign with their offspring than they are of me for not signing. Different parents try different things for different reasons, so my comments were not meant to judge others for making their choices. Put simply, I’m questioning whether parents are being pressured to sign, whether signing has become a marketing scheme, and whether it’s optimal to teach an insular language before a community language. For instance, a man recently spent three years teaching his baby Klingon. One could argue that teaching a fictional alien language is his choice, that Klingon may benefit his child’s intelligence, but even still, I would be annoyed if story time were to be rephrased in the insular language of Klingon (and yes, I know the analogy is slightly unfair, but I’m using it anyway).

All this brings me to the latest edition of Time Magazine, which has a feature article about helicopter parenting, which reminded me of other well-intentioned parenting choices in which I have differed; choices that would have me contradicting the good intentions of school districts, parents, friends, and family.

For example, why are kids being denied recess? Isn’t play an important skill that prevents academic stagnation? Time Magazine mentioned the National Institute for Play as an advocacy group for recreation and recess, and I really want to echo their agenda here. Let the students out for play!

Time Magazine also mentions Lenore Skenazy,  of the Free-Range Kids blog, who makes it her mission to question the stifling culture of over-protection that has smothered many children in a layer of bubble wrap, despite the evidence that our communities are safer than ever. Some parents are worried about giving their children the freedom and responsibility to ride their bikes a few blocks to school. I would never overtly judge the individual parents who wish to keep their children safe by driving them, but I would question the culture of concern that has branded pedestrian school traffic as dangerous and unsafe.

Time Magazine has even given space to authors, John Buell and Etta Kralovec, who advocate in their book The End of Homework that children need less work to take home and more time to be kids. I happen to agree with this, but I wouldn’t use my opinion to judge my friends who spend several hours every night helping their children by reviewing and assisting with the massive amounts of homework they bring home.

It’s hard to strike a balance between questioning of parenting choices and hating on those choices. I know that this blog has crossed that line in the past, but that will inevitably happen when writing about parenting. I don’t apologize for taking a hard line in favor of vaccines, but there are other times when people have rejected my entire blog because one post challenged their lifestyle (see spanking article). I feel bad about the times when controversial topics have turned readers away, but the feedback and dialogue provided by you are always welcome, even if we passionately disagree.

For a more hard-lined opinion on the topic, see George Carlin’s take:



  1. baby signing for children who are not deaf is an unnecessary skill

    I disagree. I’d like to see all children taught sign language as standard. There’s a whole community of deaf people who are marginalised because currently-abled people don’t bother to learn to communicate with them.

    • There’s no evidence that i’ve seen that signing as an infant will create adults who sign, but I understand your objection. I still don’t think signing is “necessary”; signing is a choice with selective value.

      • What I’m saying really is that it’s no less ‘necessary’ than speaking around a child in the hope that they will begin to pick up words. In an ideal world, every human being would be able to sign just as well as they speak, so that nobody is ‘left out’ simply because they do not speak the vocal language of others.

      • I am but one anecdotal point, but I can say that having learned sign language as a child to communicate with deaf foster kids my parents looked after left me with the mere ability to sign out the alphabet. It’s only minimally useful now (which is to say, not really), and the alphabet is pretty easy to pick up on your own if you wanted to. At least I had a purpose for it when I was little, though.

    • I see your point.

  2. I don’t get your anti-signing thing. It seems more like you’re against the marketing of it, which I can see. I wasn’t exposed to any ad campaigns for it when I did my stay-at-home dad thing. I noticed someone doing it, found a card that had about 40 simple signs and tried a few with my daughter just to see how it went. I probably consistently only used less than a dozen of them and she picked up a handful. It doesn’t create any language delay at all and was just an incredibly useful tool to communicate her needs/wants at a time when she didn’t yet have the words. I’m talking simple things like “more” (which ended up meaning food in general for her), “bath,” “done,” that kind of thing. She even picked up “thank you” and continued to do it for a while even after learning to say it. It cut back on frustration for both of us and was mildly entertaining. It’s not a whole other “language,” just simple things to get a few ideas across at a time when any info about why they’re cranky is a welcome thing!

    • Do you feel like signing is absolutely necessary, worth the money people spend on expensive classes, and that parents should feel pressured to try it? If not, then we agree on this topic.

      I used some signing w/ sasha too. I’m not anti-signing any more than you are anti-monolingual infants. That’s why I attempted to rephrase my opinion.

      eta: I just re-read this and it came off sounding aggressive. I wrote it on my cell phone real quick while I was shopping. Adding a smiley now. 🙂

  3. In tribute to Mr. Carlin my daughter sat outside and played with a stick today.

    • I have to stop my girls from bringing the stick inside. “No dear, stick is an outside toy!”

  4. Hi,

    I just found this site and think its very interesting.

    RE: signing, the author of Parenting, Inc. makes the point that if you want to do something fun with your child, fine. But too many classes (music, signing, etc) are expensive and promise to turn your child into a genius. Infant signing might be helpful for a few pre-verbal months but won’t get anyone into Harvard 18 years later.

    • Parenting, Inc. author, Pamela Paul, came by and commented the very first time I wrote about sign language for infants. I was quoting from her excerpt printed at And, I agree with her sentiments that you echo here. Signing is fine, but not some miracle IQ booster.

  5. I am certainly not concerned with my daughter being successful. I feel that she will be because of other necessary skills I am teaching her, like critical thinking, problem solving, patience and those sort of life lessons. That said I definitely think it is a useful skill. My 16 month old is completely potty trained for pees and almost always for poops. Not because I ever “trained” her but because we had a means of communication that she could use starting at 8 weeks old. She only did one sign at that time and it was “dry” (wiping nose). She would do that sign every time before she would go in her diaper. We now have many signs that she can use. She often verbalizes at the same she signs. Her words are still hard to understand and she can not use proper diction. I learned in several linguistic classes I have taken at the University level that children aren’t physically capable of using clear “fluent” verbal communication until 2 years of age. While I agree that people should not waste money on marketed products, if a parent is dedicated to communicating with their child at a younger age, signing is a good option. I know you are not anti-signing but to say that it is unnecessary is extremely subjective. I feel that communication is necessary and the sooner a child can communicate the better. I suppose to have this argument you would have to define whether or not clear communication is necessary. I certainly feel that communicating needs like elimination, hunger, tiredness, and nursing are necessary for parents and infants. Crying is a form of communication and one could argue offering a less difficult to translate option like sign language is necessary to raising a child that is getting their needs met as soon as possible.

  6. For the record, I like this blog precisely because some of your post challenge my own assumptions, sometimes forcing me to reevaluate them and maybe revise them. If all kids were the same, we could consistently apply a formula expecting a consistent result. The fact that this does not happen in reality means that we have to sit around and discuss the implications of various bodies of evidence, even if they contradict some belief (usually an irrational one) that we’ve grown up with.

    In short: thanks, and keep it up!

  7. I think the problem with the marketing of sign language is part of a larger cultural issue with exaggeration of benefits. There are some immediate, short-term benefits to teaching babies some sign language, but the problem arises when parents think sign language will make turn their kid into a genius or make them more successful as adults. I know a baby who learned the sign for “milk” long before he could talk, and that small amount of communication really helped both him an his parents. I know toddler who can do a few signs, like “bathroom”, which is really useful when she needs to communicate with her parents across a noisy playground when the wouldn’t be able to hear her. However, none of those parents expects major long-term benefits from sign language; it’s just a short-term convenience for them.

  8. FWIW, we taught our kids (2 boys and 1 girl) simple signs before they could talk. We believe that it helped them develop communication skills. As we taught them the signs we always taught them the corresponding words. With all three of our kids they abandoned signing as they learned to talk, probably since talking is really a much more efficient way to communicate. It certainly did no harm.

  9. Ticktock,

    I think you misunderstand why signing is popular. It’s about teaching kids to communicate before have the ability to speak. Children who learn to sign will learn to speak sooner and have fewer tantrums.

    The results aren’t mixed. But the way you go about makes all the difference.

    • You make the claim that signing children will “learn to speak sooner” and have “fewer tantrums”. I’m skeptical, but I’m willing to accept the evidence.

      I do understand the reasons for early signing, but they still seem like novelty over necessity. I must admit that it’s very cute to see little children cleverly signing and communicating before they’re able to speak. It just seems like spoken language comes quickly after, so the window of benefit is narrow. Signing is ultimately a parenting choice, and I’m only sharing my opinion on why I chose not to sign with my kids, which is pretty much the status quo.

  10. I think I’d add that for some children, baby signing is a godsend as it is basically Makaton (children’s disabled sign language). My son suffered brain damage as a result of a fall when he was a baby, and the therapists had us signing with him because we didn’t know if he would ever learn to speak. He did, but the signing was still very useful and I think it helped him to learn spoken language (as we spoke words as we signed to him, and he tried to copy us).

  11. I know of a woman who taught her infant to sign. It was *not* to give her child a competitive edge. Rather, it was because her 8 month was howling like a lunatic whenever he wanted something. At that age, a child typically can’t talk, but they do have the manual dexterity to sign. Once the kid learned some basic sign and could make his needs clear, the blood-curdling howling ceased. Sanity and quiet for mom cannot be underrated.

    • Amen, Rose.

  12. For many years before it became popular for typical infants and toddlers, speech-language pathologists have been using sign language as a substitute for, or a bridge to, verbal language for children who have communication delays. It does not impede spoken language. It enhances communication for children who, for a variety of reasons, can’t communicate otherwise and in the process, it encourages them to talk, if they can. Sign language has recently become trendy and that is a good thing. Not because today’s infants and toddlers will necessarily become brighter for it (infants and toddlers whose parents are involved enough to teach them sign will probably be bright anyway), but because the children who need the signing can be the stars in the preschool classroom when they know the signs and can help the teacher teach the other kids.

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