By Dawn Van Osdell
Bill White says he can teach any parent “the next best thing to breastfeeding,” guaranteed to avert the infamous Terrible Twos by increasing verbal skills, reducing frustration, and promoting bonding between parent and child. “It’s so easy that even a gorilla can do it,” he says. The secret? According to White, it’s American Sign Language (ASL).
“Babies’ brains don’t care what language you use. They just want to know that you know what they want, and that you value what they have to say,” says White, a San Mateo, California father to two boys—Liam, age 13 and Christian, age 10—and the director of sign language programs at the online family resource Touch Blue Sky. Sign language gives children the ability to communicate long before they are able to verbalize their wants and needs, and research shows that because it uses both the left and right hemispheres of the brain, it also stimulates brain development, ultimately resulting in richer vocabulary and higher self-esteem. It even boosts IQ over time.
White brought ASL instruction to Touch Blue Sky—started in 2000 by his wife, Kathleen Ann Harper, as a hub for accessing pre- and post-natal massage and life coaching services from around the San Francisco Bay Area—as a way to enrich the lives of parents and families in his community. He and twelve other instructors—including one who is deaf and another who’s the child of a deaf adult (CODA)— teach parents ASL, who in turn teach their children, through workshops offered at more than 30 hospitals and parenting centers, including Blossom Birth Services, several Kaiser Permanente facilities, and Dignity Health.
The program takes baby sign language to a whole new level. White says, “It’s like baby sign language on steroids.” Parents learn more than 300 signs—words for foods, colors, family, animals, and playtime, for instance—and in turn can teach babies as young as 10 months old to start using them to communicate. Learning a new language and teaching it to an infant sounds like a lot of work for weary, sleep-deprived parents. But White, a fan of stand-up comedy, keeps them entertained through fun, interactive activities, games, and songs; and says both parents and infants learn quickly, thanks to muscle memory, which has them communicating in about 13 sessions. “Brain and muscles work together in a way that’s pretty predictable,” he says. “Before long, hands just know what to do.”
White’s interest in ASL began some 30 years ago, in a noisy Squaw Valley ski lodge. At the time, he was studying psychobiology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He had a long-time interest in neuroscience, which partially explains why he was mesmerized by a couple he saw in the lodge, signing to each other. “They could totally understand each other, from across the room and despite the chaotic noise around them,” he remembers. “They were communicating using their hands and bodies. It was like dancing.” The multi-talented White had been a jazz, ballet, and tap dancer since his teen years, and the beauty of the couple’s communication spoke to him so strongly that he enrolled in a local community college course to learn to sign. Then, he moved on to other things and stashed that knowledge away.
He unpacked it 20 years later, in 2005, when he met and married Harper and became a first-time father. He wanted to better communicate with his 10-month-old hearing son, Liam, so he began signing to him. He quickly taught his son about 40 words, like hat and fish. “Back then, no one was signing to a hearing child, except for a few who were using simplified signs for milk and more. But we were all enthralled by the effectiveness of communicating with infants,” says White. He took advantage of the flexibility that his work (then as a commercial print model, dance instructor, and choreographer for bridal shows) afforded him. And he decided to “crank it up” by creating a program to teach real ASL—rather than “dumbed down signs for babies”—to other parents. He built a program based on decades of research from the National Institutes of Health and taught a group at Harper’s mothers’ club. He soon expanded to local library branches, then parenting centers and hospitals whose prominence gave his workshop the credibility it needed to really take off.
To date, White has taught more than 10,000 parents how to sign with their babies. He breaks the learning into manageable chunks to fit into parents’ busy schedules—a 90-minute introductory workshop to learn about 20 basic signs and get advice on how to incorporate them into everyday routines; and follow-up training sessions, structured like playgroups. He offers a six-week session for parents of infants up to 18 months old, their babies along for the ride, typically nursing or sleeping while their moms and dads learn a new way of communicating; and a shorter session for older toddlers and preschoolers to improve the signing skills they learned as infants.
“It’s no surprise that babies want to be heard,” says White. “They have preferences and they want to communicate long before they are able to speak verbally.” To help facilitate this for a broader range of families, White is considering taking his classes online. “I’m all about giving parents the opportunity to impact their child’s development and build self-esteem in the early years,” he says. Because, “It’s what happens during those first years that totally sets the stage for life.”
Photographs by Matt Mimiaga