The Unspeakable

This week and next I’m sharing some changes Chris and I have made in the past couple months to how we parent Gracie. On Tuesday, I talked about our new public time out. Today, I thought I’d share about one of the things we’re doing at home.

One of the things you all kept mentioning and that I remember from Bean when he was Gracie’s age is that this period of crying and whining and temper tantrums is common in two-year-olds because they lack the communication skills to be able to express what they want or need. Gracie knows baby sign language, but doesn’t use it very often. So, we started paying attention to how often she actually uses words to communicate. And it wasn’t often. Like, at all.


We had been aware of how little Gracie talked before we connected it with her frustration. We felt like Bean had spoken much more when he was Gracie’s age, but we tried not to compare them. It was more just a curious observation. But after I posted about Gracie’s temper tantrums and several of you suggested it might have something to do with her lack of ability to communicate, Chris and I really started paying attention to what Gracie could say and when she could say it.

What we discovered was that Gracie actually knew a LOT of words. When she was alone with us, she talked up a storm. But when Bean was around, suddenly she didn’t say a word. It wasn’t that she was unhappy around him – not at all! It’s just that he spoke for her so often, there was no reason for her to talk! We really didn’t realize how often we let Bean speak on Gracie’s behalf, but when we started noticing, it was ALL THE TIME!

For example, every night at the dinner table, Chris asks the kids what they did at school that day. Bean can answer in complete sentences and often goes into long stories (usually where he tattles on every one of his friends…). Now, Gracie isn’t even two yet, so she hardly understands the question. But we weren’t even giving her the chance to learn the habit of speaking when someone asks her a question, which is the real purpose of discussions with your little ones. It’s not so much about what they say or what you ask. It’s more about them learning how social interactions go. But Gracie wasn’t able to get that practice because Bean Man spoke for her all the time.


“How was your day, Gracie?” Chris would ask.

“Gooood!” she’d reply (mostly because she mimics what other people say, and “good” is a common answer).

“What did you do in school today?” Chris would ask.

“She colored and I saw her playing on the playground!” Bean would pipe up.

“Really???” Chris would ask Gracie. “You played outside????”

“Yeah!” she would say.

And while these little interjections by Bean aren’t that big of a deal, it does take away a speaking opportunity from Gracie. In that example, for instance, she was reduced to a mere two word response, which was sometimes just a head nod instead of actual words.

When we noticed it the most was when Gracie needed something.

“Mom! Gracie needs more juice!”

“Mom! Gracie’s shoe fell off!”

“Mom! Gracie wants to go outside!”

Gracie literally never asked for a thing around our house! Bean took care of it all, like the good big brother that he is. But what we were beginning to think was that maybe this was starting to impact Gracie’s ability to communicate. If she was hardly communicating on her own when everything was fine, then how would she ever learn to communicate on her own when she was upset?

We’ve started really making an effort to help Gracie speak for herself. We’ve done this in a few ways. First, we are trying to spend more one-on-one time with her. Either with one parent and only Gracie, or both parents and only Gracie. This not only gives her some undivided attention, which she was seeking, but it also gives her the chance to talk to us on her own. Mostly, though, it gives Chris and I a chance to see what she is actually able to say and what we need to work on. Turns out, she’s a talking machine! Girlfriend can communicate exactly what she wants or needs when she’s by herself, which was a real relief for us. And it led us to our second change.

Now, we make sure that when we ask Gracie a question or when Gracie has a need, she is the one who speaks. At the dinner table, we tell Bean he has to wait his turn to talk. We make sure we say it very nicely to him, of course. It isn’t his fault he helps her out too much! Bean Man isn’t doing anything wrong at all! He’s just being a good brother. But Bean has to learn that even though Gracie can’t use full sentences or carry on conversations, she still gets a chance to talk, just like him.


We also make sure that when he tells us that she needs something (juice, a diaper change, a toy, etc.), that we go talk to Gracie about it before we fulfill the request. So, if he tells us that Gracie needs more snack, we thank Bean for helping and then we go over to Gracie and say, “Can you tell me what you want, Gracie?” Sometimes she doesn’t answer, so we prompt her a little more by saying, “You want a snack Gracie? Snack? Can you say, ‘Snack, please?'” And then we wait for her to say, “‘nack, pees!” Taking just that extra bit of effort to help Gracie make the effort is helping so much.

My mom kept the kids this past weekend, and she was going on and on about how much more Gracie was talking. She said she talked all weekend long. And we are noticing the same thing at home. Now, Gracie is coming to us more and more to make her own requests. This has actually prevented a ton of meltdowns and hysterics! Now, she is able to tell us more about what she wants or needs BEFORE the situation erupts into a meltdown. It is also helping her problem solving skills because not only is she having to communicate, but she’s actually having to figure out WHAT to communicate.


“My cup is empty.” Before, this would have evoked a full on meltdown. Now, she’s figuring out that all she has to do it ask for more, and the problem is solved.

This change actually has very little to do with Gracie. It was more about a change that Chris and I needed to make in our awareness of our family. We had to start paying attention more to Gracie BEFORE there was a problem. We had to remind ourselves that just knowing her needs wasn’t enough. We had to start LISTENING to her express those needs. And that meant we had to start encouraging her to speak by making sure her environment was more aware of her. Honestly, it has not only eliminated a lot of temper tantrums, but it has helped us focus more on Gracie and learn more about her. And what we are learning is that Gracie is pretty darn awesome! She is smart and funny and quick, and I’m so glad we have finally gotten a better handle on our home life so that we get the chance to really see those traits in action.

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11 Thoughts to “The Unspeakable”

  1. Sara R.

    We had the exact same problem with our youngest. Now that he’s 5 and his big sister is 8, we have a new problem. She always decides what they do when they play together. And now, when he’s alone (he’s been home sick from school this week), he walks around not knowing what to do or play with. It’s like he forgot how to play alone. So, we are doing the same thing that you guys did with Gracie. Even when both kids are home, we are keeping them separate for a while, making sure Matthew gets some one-on-one time with one of us where HE dictates what we do. It’s already making a difference.

  2. Deepa

    This is such a great post! I love when a parenting theory actually pans out. Congrats!

  3. JustAng

    This is so helpful! I’ve mentioned before that our daughters are almost the same age and have very similar temperaments. She doesn’t have a sibling yet (well, not for a few more months! Yikes!). But I think I take Bean’s role here. I often anticipate her needs, so she doesn’t get the chance to really communicate…and thus the consequent frustrated tantrums because she’s not getting to practice expressing herself in normal situations. I am going to use some of your tips and let my daughter take the lead more. Something tells me she’ll be VERY comfortable in that role. 🙂

  4. I remember this exact thing with my little brothers growing up. VERY typical that the older sibling does all the talking. Don’t worry – my baby brother still did higher on the SAT verbal section that his older brother!

  5. Kelly H

    Couple of things, you guys are great parents and I love reading these posts even though we don’t have kids yet. And also could Gracie get any cuter!!! I mean seriously! I want to squeeze her. You two need to have a million more babies because they are precious

  6. Laura

    I’m learning that so much of the time it is more about the adults changing their behavior or trying new techniques. My daughter is 4, but Gracie reminds me a lot of her. Right now I’m reading Taming the Spirited Child and it is an eye-opener for me. It’s like the author took my daughter and wrote a book about her. It really has helped a lot to teach me how to channel her persistance, curiosity, senstivity and power(stubborness) in positive ways.

  7. You guys are such great parents! Bean seems like such a sweetie & a great older brother, and it’s amazing that you are working so hard to ensure that Gracie is getting those little chances to practice talking & expressing her needs to!

  8. Catherine

    My twin sister and I used to talk for my little brother ALL the time. My mom used to joke that he was the quietest baby at home because we, his two year old sisters, pretty much spoke for him all day, every day. Whenever he was alone without us he would talk up a storm. It’s funny to think back on it now but I am not sure how my parents coped with it to be honest. Probably a lot similar to how you are doing it now. 🙂

  9. My oldest’s first word was at 9 months and she had short sentences by 15 mos. My youngest didn’t have more than a handful of words when she turned two. It’s the way it goes. I love how proactive you’re being though – and I really love that it’s paying off. Good job!

  10. Gracie may not talk as much as Bean but she’s a far better dancer. Haha…more Gracie videos, please!
    Sorry my comment wasn’t more intelligent…no brain power left right now.

  11. […] and it’s so cool to watch how quickly she can absorb. Mainly speaking, her vocabulary. I had read on a friends blog about how her daughter was having tantrums, and she finally diagnosed it having to do with her limited ability to communicate. Well, having […]

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