In her own words: Raising a multilingual child

Ever since she was a toddler, Peeper has had the gift of gab. She was making puns, telling stories and naming all her letters before she turned 2. I had always dreamed of raising a multilingual child—but that vision has turned out a little differently in reality. (You’re shocked, right?)

Now that she’s nearly 4 (?!?!?!?), Peeper is using language in ways that make us laugh—and translate more words online than I ever thought I would.

The most hilarious way this kid uses language: According to her, she is multilingual.

Sign language for kids

English is her first language, of course. Her second is sign language. Teaching my kids to sign seemed a reasonable place to begin raising a multilingual child.

Like many families, we used sign language with Peeper before she could talk. And when we used ASL with Kiwi, Big Sister picked it up again.

My kids use sign language to better communicate // raising bilingual children. Ten Thousand Hour Mama
When we didn’t know a word in sign, we’d look it up. The whole family’s sign language vocabulary grew and grew. The girls continue to sign even though they can speak with their words just as well.

Then one night while I was putting Peeper to bed, I could barely keep my eyes open as I sang her Frosty the Snowman. Yet my supposed-to-be-sleeping preschooler was jiggling and wiggling in the bed.

I opened my heavy eyes and saw her hands were flying around, flitting this way and that as I sang.

Soon enough I realized she was “signing” the words to the song. The movements of her hands matched the action of Frosty—and her little face was intent with concentration. She stacked her fists atop one another for “snowman” and tapped her head for “hat.” My favorite of her made-up signs: for “dance around,” she’d shimmy and boogie under the covers.

Her interpretation of Frosty the Snowman may not be understood by anyone who uses real sign language, but I certainly followed along—and appreciated her creativity.

Learning Chinese in preschool

Next step in raising a multilingual child: In Peeper’s school, the kids learn a bit of Mandarin, starting as early as preschool. They sing songs, learn basic words like colors and “friend” and count in Chinese.

In an attempt to become multilingual myself, I studied Mandarin briefly in middle school when I lived in Singapore. It was hard. Granted, Peeper and her classmates aren’t learning to write characters (which was the most difficult part for me!) but even still, Mandarin isn’t the simplest language.

Learning Chinese in preschool: Raising bilingual children. Ten Thousand Hour Mama

Yet Peeper is soaking in this new language. Sometimes I hear her counting in Chinese, and I swear she can count higher in Mandarin than in English.

The other day Kiwi and I picked her up from school. As we walked down the hallway, my multilingual child pulled on my arm.

Wo ai ni,” Peeper told me. “I love you.”

“Oh honey, wo ai ni!” I replied.

One of the school’s teachers, who is Chinese, walked by at that moment. She was almost as thrilled as I was!

The rest of the way home, Kiwi practiced some Mandarin of her own. “Ai ni ” she repeated over and over.

“Kiwi is saying ‘ai ni!'” Peeper praised her sister the entire way home. Before long, Little Sister will be listing the reasons she simply will not go to sleep or wants the Paw Patrol sippy cup, not the Cinderella one—in Mandarin.

A child’s version of Spanish

The final language Peeper “speaks” is Spanish. You’d think raising a multilingual child with Spanish would be easier, considering I used to be mostly fluent and am now conversational. But I hardly spoke Spanish with her, despite knowing that raising a child to be bilingual or multilingual has tons of benefits, including a boost in school performance, empathy, executive control and an appreciation of diversity.

Even still, we sprinkle a few words here and there. “That’s how you say ‘let’s go’ in Spanish,” we’ll say, or “that means ‘where are you?'” We often check out books with Spanish sprinkled throughout, so Peeper has picked up a number of palabras en español. She’s definitely picking up on the fact that you use different words to talk in different languages.

Proof: One afternoon Peeper got our attention.

“Want to know how you say ‘yes’ in Spanish?” she asked with her too adorable lisp on her s’s.


Instead of saying “,”—or anything else for that matter—she wiggled her eyebrows up and down like Groucho Marx.

So now that’s how we say ‘yes’ to each other.

Eyebrow wiggles from Catherine Ryan Gregory on Vimeo.

“Do you want some bunny crackers?”
“Should we go to the playground?”
“Did you just konk your sister on the head with that block?”

Eyebrow wiggle.

The humor in raising a multilingual child

My host parents and host sister from when I studied abroad in Argentina have been in town this summer. We haven’t seen them since Peeper was just two months old, so it’s been nearly four years since I last saw them in person.

Recently we met up in Salem. It was wonderful to see them again after so long and for them to spend time with the girls, especially Kiwi, whom they had only met on Skype and Facebook.

When my kids met my study abroad host parents, they communicated through the universal language: laughter. Ten Thousand Hour Mama
About halfway through the day, though, Peeper told me, “Mama, stop talking like that.” She of course couldn’t understand our conversation in Spanish. (Reason #589 that I should do a better job of raising a multilingual child.)

“Honey, that’s the language Abuela and Abuelo speak,” I explained.

Then I told my host parents that Peeper could say “” in Spanish. They looked at Peeper expectantly.

Peeper, who had gone from hiding behind my legs to holding onto Abuela and Abuelo’s hands, didn’t hesitate. She wiggled her eyebrows up and down, looking at my host parents all the while. The whole table—including Peeper and Kiwi—cracked up. Then Peeper and my host dad took turns wiggling eyebrows at each other, barely containing their giggles.

As it turns out, laughter sounds the same in every language.

According to my preschooler, she is not only bilingual—she speaks four languages! Ten Thousand Hour Mama

Camping crafts: Kids let their creativity go wild!

Back before we had kids, Eric and I camped regularly—and spontaneously. We’d throw the tent, sleeping bags and a cooler in our 1985 Volvo station wagon and head into the woods. These days, camping with kids requires a bit more preparation—including figuring out some kids activities that will keep them happy in the camp site. Since the girls love art so much, it made sense to come up with some camping crafts so they could create in nature.

Camping crafts like this nature collage art project keep kids happy when you're family camping—and require almost no prep or supplies! Ten Thousand Hour Mama

We haven’t gone camping with the kids yet this year, but we camped for Father’s Day last year—and the girls loved doing this camping craft. They did it one morning when they needed a little out-of-the-sun quiet time after hiking, sprinting around the campground, making friends and walking over hot coals. (Just kidding! We’re waiting until they’re at least 6 to walk on the camp fire.)

Camping crafts like this nature collage are a wonderful way to incorporate art into your family camping this summer. Read more

Clingy phase 2.0: Extreme toddler face melds

If you’re looking for Kiwi, she’s busy trying to literally merge herself with me. Because she does nothing halfway, she’s taking the clingy phase to new extremes.

What, your toddler doesn’t try to smash herself into you with such force that you suddenly become one person instead of two? Isn’t that attachment parenting?

Oh, my bad. I thought that was totally normal behavior.

Oh my gosh, the clingy toddler phase is taken to the next level: She wants to smash her face into mine! Ten Thousand Hour Mama Oh my gosh, the clingy toddler phase is taken to the next level: She wants to smash her face into mine! Ten Thousand Hour Mama Read more

Must-do kids activities in Portland: Oregon bloggers’ recs

Having a bunch of blogger friends is the best. They’re like a combination of the hive mind, Yelp, google and a travel agent, except with really awesome photo skills. When I need recommendations on where to eat or what to do in Portland, Oregon, I ask my Portland bloggers buds first; ditto where to stay at the coast, or what to cook for an upcoming BBQ. So when I wanted to collect a bunch of must-do family and kids activities in Portland, I knew who to ask.

I posed this question in a handful of Portland bloggers groups I belong to:

When friends and their family visit Portland from out of town, where do you send them?

Lucky for me (and you!) they sent a bunch of responses. Read on for insider tips, recommendations and curated travel plans for the best Portland family-friendly spots and kids activities!

Blogger recommendations for the best restaurants + kid activities in Portland, Oregon! family-friendly travel // Ten Thousand Hour Mama Read more

7 ways to help on this World Refugee Day

You can make a difference. Here's how to help refugees. // volunteer // charity // give back // Ten Thousand Hour Mama

Six years ago, Syrian teen Nabil fled Syria with his family. They stayed for four years in a small apartment in Jordan, all the while doing everything they could to find a permanent, stable, safe home. Now Nabil and his family have settled in Seattle, where he plays forward on his soccer team, volunteers with a Muslim organization to reach out to local homeless people and welcomes other Syrian refugees as they arrive and begin to rebuild their lives.

This World Refugee Day, which is marked across the globe on June 20, nonprofits, governmental organizations and regular citizens like you and me can recognize the immense resilience of refugees like Nabil. I got to interview Nabil for my work with Microsoft Philanthropies, which is sharing stories of refugee youth to direct donations to its nonprofit partners such as the International Rescue Committee, Mercy Corps, the UNHCR and more. And stories like Nabil’s, and the tens of thousands of others like him, inspire us to want to know how to help refugees.


7 ways to help refugees for World Refugee Day - and every day. Ten Thousand Hour Mama Read more

Father’s Day scavenger hunt with Yoobi chalk

Truth be told, we aren’t huge on holidays or anniversaries around here (with the exception of Christmas—which we call XMAS XMAS!!!). But Father’s Day is this weekend, and I wanted to involve my kids in doing something special for Eric, who is truly a phenomenal dad. The trick: Their attention spans are short. Kiwi is a disaster with paint, which rules out most Father’s Day crafts. And they’re much more interested in doing stuff with their dad than spending an afternoon making him a photo frame out of popsicle sticks. So this year, we devised a Father’s Day scavenger hunt.

One reason I’m excited about a Father’s Day scavenger hunt is that it doesn’t take a ton of commitment or prepping. All I needed to do was take a few photos of the kids (which in itself is no small feat, considering their semi-disastrous history with photo shoots). The girls didn’t have to do a ton. They can save their Father’s Day enthusiasm for the day-of, when they’ll get to “help” their dad find his prize!

So if you’re looking for a last-minute Father’s Day gift, this scavenger hunt—made with just a few photos, lots of chalk and a little imagination—is the perfect way to tell dad “I love you!”

A great Father's Day gift: a scavenger hunt with the kids! Ten Thousand Hour MamaLooking for a quick + easy gift for Dad? This Father's Day scavenger hunt, complete w/ kids photos, is perfect! Ten Thousand Hour Mama A Father's Day scavenger hunt is a fun, easy and great last-minute gift idea for the kids to do for Dad. Ten Thousand Hour Mama

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Meals for new moms: Bring just what they need (& want!)

Everything you need to make delicious meals for new moms - Ten Thousand Hour Mama

When each of my girls was born, the steady delivery of meals was an enormous help. I couldn’t figure out how to breastfeed, much less feed myself, so the food friends brought nourished me in a way I deeply needed. In addition, their visits proved to be a much-appreciated and reliable contact with the regular adult world whose primary concern was not how many wet diapers the baby has had today. So if you’re considering making meals for new moms, I say to you: DO IT.

Since my big girls are no longer babies, I’ve had the opportunity to pay everyone’s kindness forward. I’ve brought quite a few meals for new moms and their families, and in the process I’ve learned a lot about what to do—and what not to do—when delivering meals to new moms.

So if you’ve signed up for a meal train, YOU ARE AWESOME. Know that by making a meal (or bringing takeout—that’s totally not cheating!), you are showing this new mama that she is loved, supported, cared for—and that her village will help lift her up as she undertakes the most monumental change of her life.

She is a new mom, and you are helping her become the best mother she can be.

(And that’s a big deal.)

If you’re not quite sure what to bring or what to do, though, you’ve come to the right place. When it comes to making meals for new moms, I share these 12 tips to help you make life easier for the family more focused on umbilical cord scabs than dinnertime.  Read more