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What I Learned From My Son Who Wouldn't Speak

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Little boy looking at world map
Little boy looking at world map

When I became a mom the second time around, I thought I'd be more laid-back than I was with my first child. And for a while, I was. Baby #2 nursed beautifully. He slept beautifully. He crawled at nine months. And not long after crawling, he walked, then ran. He hit all of his milestones right on time. All but one.

For nearly two years, my son didn't talk. Not much, anyway. He said a few words: Mama. Dada. Ball. No.

But while my oldest son had been talking in full sentences by the time he turned one, and was incorporating million-dollar words like 'microcosm' and 'disproportionate' into his vocabulary as a toddler (still not sure where he picked up those) - my second son was largely mute.

In another era, he might have been described as the strong and silent type. But strong and silent just don't cut it in the 21st century. If you've become a parent any time in the last decade, you know what doctors and websites and parenting magazines say about a baby that doesn't speak. In thinly-veiled, or sometimes stark, terms, we're told that a non-verbal child could have developmental delays, even be "on the spectrum." Wordlessness, parenting experts warn, is often an early sign of autism.

So I worried. And I fretted. And I worried some more.

I read him books. Lots of them. Up to ten at a time.

I took him to music classes in a bid to get him to verbalize through song.

We watched all of the educational classics together: Sesame Street. Curious George.

When none of that worked, we had his hearing tested. Our pediatrician, flummoxed by how silent Baby #2 was, convinced me he probably just had excess fluid in his ears and that one ear exam is all that stood between him and an enormous vocabulary.

But no, he passed his hearing test with flying colors. And still he didn't talk.

It was my mother who finally calmed me down. A lifelong speech pathologist, my mother had listened to me during my regular calls to her at her home in Wisconsin, obsessing over what the worried doctors and judgmental moms were telling me.

She had tried repeatedly to remind me that Einstein didn't talk as a small child either - that there are a number of documented cases showing that early talking has no connection to later signs of intelligence.

But it wasn't until we sat together watching my son play in a hotel room the summer before he turned two that she finally succeeded in allaying my fears.

As he engaged in an impromptu game of Hide and Seek with my older son, my mother noted how Baby #2 could point and nod and shake his head. More importantly, she implored me to watch as he smiled and laughed.

"You have nothing to worry about," my mother said, smiling and clapping her hands in return.

"Your generation of parents - even this new generation of doctors - has forgotten that communication isn't just about words. It's about non-verbal communication, too: smiles and hugs and kisses and points of the fingers and waves of the hands. Often those nonverbal things hold more meaning than any words."

And watching her watch Baby #2, I saw him through different eyes. No, he didn't say much. But he expressed a great deal. Words weren't the tools he chose to get his message across.

Baby #2 ultimately did need speech and language help, which we began soon after he turned 3. The speech pathologist assigned to work with him twice a week helped him to find his voice, literally.

And she helped me to brace myself for the world he was entering. "He's going to be great," she told me repeatedly. "But you need to steel yourself for the parents and teachers out there who measure a child's intelligence by how much he talks."

She was right. There have been those moments when, in spite of his high grades and standardized test scores, teachers have underestimated my son's grasp of a subject because of his reluctance to speak. There have been instances when those same teachers, impressed by other children's verbose natures, have failed to see what my son brings to any group.

He uses the time that others spend talking observing. And often what he sees is what others miss. He's the one on his Little League team to spot, between innings, the beautiful endangered falcon perched high up in the tree, prompting all to stop and marvel alongside him at the wonder of nature.

He's the one that puts together the complicated puzzles, solves the mind-bending riddles with ease, because he takes the time to take a step back, see the answers invisible to the rest of us. He's the first to spot the rainbows after a storm, to spy a lightning bug in the night sky, to notify a teacher or grownup if someone is sick or sad.

This past school year, we were thrilled when he was paired with a lovely first grade teacher who saw the deep thinker that lay within.

"He thinks before he speaks," she told me at parent/teacher conferences, raving about what she called his "thoughtful insights" that she credited for sparking interesting class discussions. "He wants to make what he says count."

But do other children talk more? I asked.

She smiled and shrugged. "Yes. But his words are the ones that carry weight."

At the end of the school year, we moms were preparing a wedding shower for that same teacher. Before school one morning, on the week of the planned celebration, I placed a piece of paper and markers on the table beside my son's bowl of Fruit Loops and asked him to write a nice note to his teacher about love or marriage while I finished getting dressed.

He picked up the markers and in the span of the three minutes that I spent in the bathroom, wrote down these words, unassisted.

"Love is invisible. It is hard to catch, but easy to find. For a happy marriage, remember to stay calm, take a deep breath in and a deep breath out."

The words - all his, not mine. He'd never said them aloud. They came from within. I wept as I showed my husband, not sure if we were raising a 7 year old little boy, or a wise poet.

Later that week, I received calls and e mails from other mothers who had seen the note, as it was being mounted in a book for the teacher. "You should be so proud of all that you taught him," I was told again and again.

"No," I said shaking my head. "I can't take credit for teaching him. If anything, he's the one who's taught me."

From my often-silent son, I've learned, in an era in which people--including so-called political 'leaders'-- can't seem to stop talking, there's tremendous wisdom in being the one who takes the time to take the whole picture in before weighing in with an opinion, who knows just as much, if not more, can be spoken with heart and action as it can with words.

I no longer worry about Baby #2. He's going to be just fine.

Mary Pflum Peterson is a mom of four and the author of White Dresses: A Memoir of Love and Secrets, Mothers and Daughters. She and her husband, Dean, are raising their family in New York. This essay originally appeared in the Washington Post