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A welcome sign: Tantrums may be on the way out

by Danielle Demetriou

Every parent is all too familiar with The Tantrum. The screaming, the flailing arms, the angry head butting — and the timing (normally in the most inconvenient public place possible).

My daughter may only be a little over a year but she is already showing alarming signs of excelling at the having-a-tantrum-in-public repertoire.

As time spent baby-book flicking or middle-of-the-night Googling will confirm, these tantrums generally stem from one issue: frustration at not being able to communicate.

And so it was with a mix of curiosity and relief that I heard about baby sign classes in Tokyo. These enable parents and babies to establish a system of communication without words using simple hand gestures.

The goal? To help babies and toddlers express their needs without resorting to loud shrieking and dramatic flailing of arms on the floor in supermarkets.

At first, I was a little wary: Already my daughter’s brain is working overtime attempting to process English at home with her mother and Japanese with her father, never mind the outside world. Would it make things easier or more complicated to add another layer of communication to the mix?

Step forward Shana Segawa. Exuberant and friendly with a contagious laugh, the native Canadian has years of experience with baby signing, teaching private and group classes across the capital.

It’s on a sunny Saturday morning that she turns up to teach a private Baby Signs workshop at our apartment, bringing with her a bright smile and a medley of bags and suitcases that would not look out of place on a week-long camping expedition.

My daughter watches with wary curiosity as Shana lugs it all up the stairs and proceeds to set things up, pulling out a computer, speakers, an iPhone and an array of bright toys.

It’s only when a giant brown bear called Beebo appears — a creature significantly bigger than the average toddler — that her wariness gives way to delight as she toddles over to say hello.

Introducing the concept, Shana explains that Baby Signs is best taught between the ages of 6 months up until children start talking at the age of around 2.

“The aim of these signs is to alleviate frustration among babies,” she says. “You are basically giving them a vocabulary before they are able to speak.”

“We teach a lot of children from multi-lingual half-Japanese families. I’ve never seen any negative effects, only positive.”

The benefits are apparently multiple: not only has scientific research shown that children who use baby sign have better communication abilities, reading skills and higher IQ later as they get older, the technique also strengthens the emotional bond with parents.

The class kicks off with Shana reading a short story about a baby who has a public meltdown (almost causing his father to have one too) as he is unable to explain that he has lost his favorite toy.

Next, to my surprise, Beebo comes to life: Shana slips her arms into his yellow gloved puppet hands and launches into an enthusiastic song.

To the delight of my swaying daughter, as Shana sings, the bear’s yellow hands sign all sorts of words in time to the music which we attempt to copy.

There is “frog” (a quick poke of the tongue followed by a “ribbit” sound), bath (two hands rubbing either side of the torso) and bubbles (touching fingertips bursting open).

I soon learn, however, that like kanji, it’s not always possible to see a connection between meaning and form — as is the case with “mummy” which involves opening my hand and tapping my thumb on my chin.

Although it can take a few months for baby signing to kick in effectively, my 1-year-old happily mimicks signs and enjoys the songs, as well as the colorful parachute silk Shana produces along with bubbles and balls and other distractions (there is a reason her bags are so big).

At the end, as Shana packs up, she explains that key to making it work is consistency — and using the signs as much as possible. And so it is that later in the day I find myself making the “water” sign when asking my daughter if she’d like a drink and frantically hitting my thumb on my chin whenever I say the word “mama”.

Now I just have to look up a few more words — “sleepy,” “hungry” and “tired” spring to mind — and maybe those unpredictable tantrums will become a thing of the past.

Shana Segawa offers introductory Baby Signs workshops (¥2,000) and courses of six fortnightly Sign, Say and Play classes (¥28,000). For more information visit www.babysignstokyo.jp or contact Shana via shana@babysignstokyo.jp.

  • bogwart

    How on earth did we manage to bring up our children tantrum-free with no discernible effort? Clearly we did something wrong….

    • jenjena

      You were lucky. Not everyone is. There’s nothing wrong with finding ways to help a little one communicate as early as possible, and no reason to be snide about it.

    • japanish

      We live in hyper capitalist times, where all challenges and responsibilities in child rearing must be farmed out to an “expert”, for a fat fee of course. Parents actually spending time just playing with their kids seems inadequate nowadays.

  • Mike Wyckoff

    I raised my son using “baby-sign” and he never once cried out of frustration for not being able to communicate. I know they exaggerated in the movie “Meet the parents” but it is a very effective way to raise an infant/toddler who hasn’t yet figured out how to talk to mommy, daddy, and the neighbours whom all speak different languages.