Good Job, Buddy

Good job.

I have been distracting a bored and slightly whiny two-year-old as we stand in the line at the drugstore’s postal outlet. I gave her two letters to put through the mail slot, one at a time, and she held out her hand for a third. She can see I have something in my hands.

Sorry. This one needs a stamp.

I get that impassive look that the age specializes in–so much of the world makes no sense–and figure it’s time to change the conversation, so I compliment her on her handling of my mail.

Good job.

I hold up my thumb with my fingers curled into my palm and smile. She looks at me.

I hold up my thumb with my fingers curled into my palm again and smile. She holds up her index finger with her fingers hanging down, and looks at me.

I hold up my thumb with my fingers curled into my palm again, and smile again. She looks at her hand, holds up her index finger with her fingers curled into her palm, and looks at me.

I hold up my thumb with my fingers curled into my palm again, and smile again. Her mother leaps into action, positioning the kid’s thumb correctly while curling down the fingers that are trying to join the thumb. She holds up this rapidly dissolving gesture and looks at me.

When do kids learn to do a thumbs-up? Opinions vary, not that we’ve ever seen that before.  Some list the gestures that babies should be learning every few months to support language development, and flag this one for 15 months, which seems a tad precise to me. Some say by 16 months, which seems a bit optimistic to me. Some report that their toddler mastered it around 28 months, which seems a bit late to me. But who knows?

What I do know, or have observed, is that a kid learning to do a thumbs-up almost always follows the same pattern. They hold up the index finger with their hand mostly open. Then they curl their other fingers into their palm loosely, but still hold up the index finger. Then someone positions their hand correctly, and they try to hold it in that position, not entirely successfully. Then they do the gesture on their own, often with a small stop at the index-finger-up gesture which they look at and correct. Finally, they do it the way we do, turning up the the thumb quickly on demand. It’s amazing, really.

A kid who sees the gesture earlier–any kid whose parents read the article on targets for month-by-month gesture acquisition and any kid whose parents gesture a lot just by disposition–will learn it earlier. Other kids will learn it later. Pretty much everyone exposed to it will have it down pat by 3 years of age.

As I progress slowly through the line, my gesturing companion is picked up by her grandmother and carried off in search of a better distraction. Heading out a few minutes later, I walk past the two of them and the grandmother says something that elicits a wave from the kid. I stop, smile, and wave back.

She looks at me and holds up her index finger. Her grandmother laughs and says, “She’ll get it next time.” But wait, what’s this? She flips her hand into a decent thumbs-up. It’s done, just like that. Amazing. Mind you, there’s still no smile: She’s working too hard for that.

And here’s the thing. I never verbally suggested that she hold up her thumb: She tried to mimic my gesture entirely on her own initiative.

We take the truly amazing stuff for granted.


This entry was posted in Appreciating Deeply, Day-to-Day Encounters, Language and Communication and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Good Job, Buddy

  1. Folklore. It’s the transmission of lore, i.e., learning and knowledge, without the medium of print or writing. It is oral and visual, demonstrated and imitated. It’s the academic subject on the overlapping fringes of English (or another language) and anthropology, with reference to most of the other academic fields of inquiry. The particular piece of lore you were transmitting is one I rarely used because I was rarely exposed to it in childhood but I discovered how importantly embedded in cultures it is in the aftermath of our youngest son’s left-brain stroke that had rendered him aphasic. The first gesture the nurses and doctors wanted him to use to communicate, which would have to be with his left hand because his right hand and arm were paralyzed, was the thumbs-up sign, and its corollary, the thumbs down sign. The damage to his left, rational, sequence-ordering brain made it difficult for him to remember how to do the gesture with his left hand. For several days, I could see his difficulty while nurses and others were assuming his failed attempts were accurate communication. I noticed that the mastering of that hand signal could be life-saving or life-threatening. Kudos to you for starting that wee lassie on a fundamental life skill!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – I’ve been fascinated to watch as sign language was added to parenting patterns over the last 20+ years (maybe even before, but that’s as far back as my grandchildren go). It’s great for a kid to be able to get communicate before they can speak. I hadn’t even thought of hand signals for people with aphasia or anything else preventing speech, but of course they’re useful. Thanks for sharing that experience. I can’t really imagine his frustration, trying to do things with the other hand.

  2. Tom Watson says:

    You have a wonderful way of turning a small gesture into something meaningful, and also turning it into a great story.

  3. Barbara Carlson says:

    Speaking of speech disabilities, a long-time friend is a speech therapist. She says one must start early, earlier the better, to speak clearly so in old age — when you’re in a Home — you can be understand when you call for a bedpan.

    When I briefly had laryngitis, it was surprising how much could be conveyed with the answer of Thumbs Up (or down).

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