By Ivett de las Mercedes
HAVANA TIMES – Being a primary school teacher helped Martha Gonzalez understand her nephew: a child with language learning difficulties. This profession requires a lot of patience and love, but it also provides tools to understand a child’s comprehensive development firsthand.
HT: How did you come to realize that your nephew had problems learning language?
Martha Gonzalez: He was two years old and he still wasn’t speaking. Every time I talked to my sister about it, she would say that some children take a little longer to speak or walk. However, I found it very strange.
My sister lives with our parents, her husband and two teenagers. People are always talking. They are a very close family, the kind that still sit down at the table together at the end of the day, so a lack of communication couldn’t be the reason. Nor could abuse or neglect, because they all get on very well.
I never thought that household chores would be the trigger that forced my sister to sit her son down in front of a TV from a very young age. You don’t talk about these things in the family sometimes, but she was overwhelmed. Not only did she have to make breakfast, lunch and dinner for six people, she had to wash clothes, iron them, keep the house clean, and look after my parents and the little one. When I decided to take my parents to live with me, it was already too late.
HT: Did she feel to blame for all of this?
MG: Of course. My sister thought that I had to realize that she was way in over her head. I just thought that she would take care of the rest when she moved in with my parents. The baby wasn’t planned, but when she found out she was pregnant, everybody was really happy.
HT: Did you speak to your sister about the dangers TV exposure has for very young children?
MG: I didn’t know this was going on. My nephew was never sat in front of the TV whenever I went around. I only discovered this one day when I went to get my mother and take her to see the doctor. Ever since then, I’ve gone to great lengths to try and explain to my sister, but she would always say that all of her children grew up like this. She clearly ignored their age and how long they were exposed to the TV.
I remember that I talked this over with my work colleagues and one of them had recently bought a TV, and she told me that there was a warning on the label at the back saying that it wasn’t allowed for children under 3. Nevertheless, she agreed to take him to a speech therapist, who said he couldn’t watch TV and to keep going to sessions.
HT: Do you believe that TV was responsible for delayed speech in this case?
MG: Children begin to learn from everything that surrounds them, at two years old. It’s a beautiful time that shouldn’t be lost. Children like to feel loved and for their parents to share activities with them. This creates a connection that we can all enjoy later. If you sit a child down in front of the TV while you do household chores, what will they learn?
The first few years are crucial for their behavioral development, a time when they need to learn and play above all else. Children are like sponges, they can sense if they get on your nerves or not, they can pick up on their parents’ mood. If a mother is happy, if she spends time with them and puts on children’s songs or sings to them, then they will feel this joy.
On the other hand, if a mother gets upset because of an argument or if she doesn’t enjoy breastfeeding, they will also feel this. Children express their wellbeing through laughter and hugs. If a small child snuggles their head next to their parents’ or brothers and sisters’, then you can be sure that everything is OK. They don’t only cry because they are hungry, tired or in pain, they can also be calling out for attention, and this attention can be play.
HT: So, playing is key for their development.
MG: They should play their first games with their parents. Then, they play with other similar-aged children and learn how to interact and it stimulates their imagination. If you stop children from playing, you stunt their development.
Parents can’t forget that children learn how to listen and to take other people’s opinions into account through play. If our children spend their early years in front of a screen, whether it’s a TV, cellphone, tablet or computer, they won’t be able to communicate their emotions through play.
HT: Can we keep our children far from communication and entertainment technologies in this day and age?
MG: We can’t stop trying. Parents have the duty to create spaces for play and learning, reading together, that will result in their affinity for culture, including educational learning, which they don’t get sitting in front of one of these devices.
Let’s remember that when children are watching cartoons, they are missing out on learning, playing outside, socializing, a lot of the time. Parents have to keep an eye on how much time they spend on these devices and a special eye on what their children watch.
HT: What can you tell us about your nephew’s recovery?
MG: He has already begun to say his first words, although he still has trouble making complete phrases. I’m sure that by the time he reaches school age, he’ll be able to go to school, although he might not get the same grades as other students.
It’s also likely that he finds it hard to socialize in the beginning, but I’m hopeful that this will all work out. We have very good child development experts in Cuba. I’m a convinced optimist. At least he has a family who is looking out for him and reading about this.
HT: During the pandemic, the subject of this interview could be of great help to families who spend a lot of time at home. Do you have anything you would like to say to them?
MG: This is the time when parents really need to worry about their children’s physical and mental wellbeing. It doesn’t matter whether we are in lockdown or if life is carrying on with some sense of normalcy. Playing with children can’t be lost because there isn’t any space or because we have too much to do.
Every parent should have an activities calendar and they should spend at least an hour with their children. Board games should be given special attention, as children of all ages can learn how to socialize, respect each other, follow a game’s rules, and assess the skill every player has.
Ludo, dominoes, capitolio, monopoly, Chinese checkers, cards, can all be enjoyed as a family. You can also enjoy doing activities together, whether that’s cooking something, reading or watching a movie.
I know many friends who have taken up puppet making again, building doll houses out of cardboard, I even have a friend who built a house for his dog with his son, and they invent games for the family cat out of boxes.
When they come home from school, you also have to be present while they do their homework, allowing them to think and do it on their own. We should give our children everything we can, but we especially need to make them feel loved and important.