Taming those ums and ers

A 5-year-old learns to order his thoughts and speak clearly.

Achilles was just about to launch an enormous rock onto Hector's head, leaving his wife a widow and his son fatherless, when 5-year-old Joah interrupted, "Mom, um, er."

I laid the book down and turned to him, "Yes, Joah."

"Um, Mom, um, er."

Three-year-old Anna sighed deeply, while 8-year-old Lael puffed in despair.

"Um, Mom, um."

"Jo, can I carry on reading while you try remember what you wanted to say?"

I picked up Rosemary Sutcliffe's retelling of the Iliad, and began again.

Just as Paris was about to shoot that fateful arrow, the arrow that would pierce Achilles in the one place he was mortal, the arrow that would end the Greek's confidence and force Odysseus to build the Trojan horse, Joah interrupted. "Mom, um, that man, what um, that man, um er."

"What man, Jo?" I said, as my girls murmured in the background.

"That man, um, not Hector, um er that man, not Paris, um, that man, not...."

"Jo, can you try figure out what man you want to ask a question about while we carry on reading?"

We managed to make it right through to that fateful night when Ajax, in a fit of madness and rage, slaughtered hundreds of sheep. Then, just as he was to throw himself on his own sword in shame, Joah stopped him, "Mom, um, er, um, why um er?"

"Sam," I said to my husband that night, "do you think it's OK to tell our children that they need to get their thoughts in a row before they speak?" I want to love our children by listening to them and allowing them time to express themselves. But I also want to love them by teaching them to be articulate. It won't take much to train them to order their thoughts before they speak. In a sense it's tough love. A little bit of firmness now, will help them win a greater hearing when they are older.

Sam agreed and so the next day I spoke to Joah. "Mom," Joah said, as Sinon was about to be captured by the Trojan warriors, "Mom, um."

"Joah, my boy," I said, "I really want to listen to you, but I want you to be sure of what you are going to say before you interrupt. So, before you speak you must think, 'This is what I'm going to say,' and then when you start to speak you mustn't think about anything else except what you decided you were going to say. Then you say it, quick and clear, with no um's and no er's."

Joah agreed and mastered the practice in two days. He used his hands for expression and to keep his mind going along that one narrow track of thought. "Mom, why did Achilles drag Hector behind his chariot?"

"Mom, can these gods lose their powers?"

"Mom, why is Zeus the father of all the other gods?"

The questions came quick, clear, fast and very, very thick. I began to wonder whether we would ever see those soldiers inside that wooden horse.

"Jo," I said eventually, "you have done so well at learning to ask clear questions. You don't um and er anymore, you just say what you want to say. But now, do you think you can work on only asking one question per page, instead of your usual seven?"

"Hmm," Joah pondered this for a bit and then said, "No, Mom, I don't think so, I can only learn one new thing at a time."

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