Language as a Problem-Solving Tool

The RIE approach assumes that no matter his/her age a child is able to understand a great deal about what is going on around him/her. RIE parents talk to their babies from birth on as though they will understand, not only the tone, but also the content of the message.

Equally important in the RIE philosophy is the idea that infants are/can be competent individuals, capable of confronting and resolving age-appropriate dilemmas. RIE babies are allowed and encouraged to solve their own problems whenever reasonable and safe,

While RIE does not emphasize infants’ language development, nor even suggest that using RIE’s guidelines will accelerate the growth of language, it should not be surprising that babies who are talked to and listened to, and are allowed to engage in problem-solving will begin at an early age to use language as a problem-solving tool.

As “RIE parents” we began speaking to Nathan the day he was born. We always address him in tones of voice which indicate our respect for him as a person; we also treat his responses with respect.

Even though we have always behaved as though Nathan could understand our words, we have sometimes been surprised at how much he actually does understand. For instance, one day  when he was about 13 months old, Nathan indicated that he wanted to look at the dog outside the window. Neither Ben nor I was available to lift him up to see, so we suggested that he go into the other room, get a stool, bring it back to the window and climb up to look out. We had no idea what Nathan would do as he crept out of the room. A few minutes later we heard the rumble of something being pushed down the hail, and Nathan shortly appeared in the doorway with the stool and an ear-to-ear grin. He pushed the stool to the window and clambered up to peer out, leaving us determined never to underestimate his comprehension.

At our house, the bedtime routine includes bath, then stories on the big bed, and last cuddling into the crib with special blankets. When Nathan was about 14 months old, we gave him the responsibility of ending his story-time and telling us when he was ready for bed. We simply said, “Tell us when you’re ready to go to bed.” From that time on, nearly every night, he stops the story after about ten minutes and says, “Night-night now,” and off he goes.

As Nathan’s vocabulary has grown, we naturally expect him to use the words he knows. When he was about 15 months old, we stopped responding to grunts and whines, and now we ask him to tell us what he wants in a normal tone of voice. We have found that Nathan is able to express his wants and needs in words or through actions. When he doesn’t know the name of something he wants, he points or reaches toward it, or finds an analogy. For example, when he was 18 months old, his regular carer gave him a drink of apple juice diluted with water. Apparently, the proportion of water to juice was higher than usual, because after tasting it, he held the cup out to her and said, “More juice, no water.”

Because we listen to Nathan, and take him seriously, he is confident about trying new language skills. He has invented two contractions: “in’t”, as in “Cup, milk in’t”, and “on’t”, as in “Put peanut butter on’t”. He also feels free to use the words he knows to describe things whose names he doesn’t know. When he was 19 months old, we were walking on the sidewalk when he said what sounded like ”Hot leaf”. Wondering if I had heard correctly, I repeated, “Hot leaf?”  “Yeah. hot leaf,” Nathan said, and pointed to the bright orange petal of a bird-of-paradise flower.

Probably the most important aspect of language as a problem-solving tool is being able to get help when it is genuinely needed. The newborn quickly learns that a cry brings help/comfort, and that literal cry for help extends well past infancy. However, when language is a natural part of a very young child’s repertoire, it soon becomes even more powerful than a cry, because it can get specific, appropriate assistance very quickly.

One day when Nathan was about 19 months old, he was playing under the kitchen table while I did chores in various parts of the house. As I passed through the kitchen, he showed me how he was climbing around under the table, saying “underneath.”  I told him I thought that looked like fun, and went off into the bedroom. A couple of minutes later, I heard a near-panicked Nathan calling, “Stuck! Stuck, Mommy, stuck!” I raced into the kitchen to find Nathan under the table with his head wedged sideways into the 3-inch space between the table’s lower cross-members and the floor. It took a minute or so for me to help him get himself out of the jam, but he emerged unscathed. (He still plays under the table, and hasn’t gotten “stuck” again.)

However, there are a few instances when even language can’t get him what he wants. A few weeks ago, Nathan, now at 21 months, had a bad case of stomach flu. For nearly three days, he could keep nothing down. Toward the end of the second day of vomiting, he asked for orange juice. I denied his request, explaining that his tummy was too sick for juice, and offered a sip of water. He began to cry and said, “Orange juice, ple-e-ease.” I again offered water and said I was sorry, but he was too sick for juice, that it would make him throw up.  In a last-ditch effort to get the longed-for juice, he said, “Orange juice, please. Nathan be very careful!” It seemed to me that he was trying to tell me that he’d try his best not to throw up, if I’d just give him some juice. He eventually settled for water, poor guy!

Educaring® Volume IV / Number 1 / Winter 1983