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.
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.