For Parents

For Parents

A Meaningful Gesture

How can symbolic gestures help with your child’s communication?

Often times, we use our hands to express our ideas or explain our thinking. For example, your baby might wave to greet you or you may place your index finger to your lips to say “Be quiet, please”. These motions show how gestures can represent specific ideas (i.e. hello or quiet) and are known as symbolic gestures. Such gestures add visual interest to our communication and can help clarify our meaning. Now, more and more research is being done to understand the role that symbolic gestures play in parent-child communication.

Do symbolic gestures help families communicate?

To answer this question, Claire Vallotton, a researcher from Michigan State University, conducted a study over an extended period of time with mother-infant pairs from low socioeconomic status homes. Her goal was to see if teaching parents symbolic gestures would positively impact family communication. To understand how parents normally use symbolic gestures in their communication, Vallotton observed a group of mother-infant pairs at play. To understand if using more symbolic gestures changes communication, she taught another group of parent-child pairs a program for learning symbolic gestures, baby sign language. Then, she observed the two different groups multiple times over a 6 to 7 month period, focusing on the symbolic gestures used by parents and their children during play.

Vallotton first determined if teaching symbolic gestures to parent-child pairs was a reasonable task for families to undertake. Both parents and children were receptive to the lessons, learning new symbolic gestures for their daily routines. Also, prior studies have found teaching families symbolic gestures through programs like baby sign language increases the frequency of symbolic gesture used in parent-child communication. This suggests that teaching symbolic gestures to families is an effective way to encourage the usage of symbolic gestures among family members to augment communication.

She then examined how mothers from both groups interacted with their children during play. In particular, she looked at how caregivers responded to distress cues such as crying, turning away or other subtle signs of displeasure. It was found that the parents who were taught to use symbolic gestures were more aware of their child’s distress cues. This is probably the result of two factors. First, families who use more symbolic gesture anticipate visual cues from their child in the form of gestures. Therefore, they may be more perceptive to other visual cues, such as scowl or frown, which indicates distress in their children. Second, children may use symbolic gestures to gain their parent’s attention and express feelings they do not yet have the verbal vocabulary to express. By adding symbolic gesture to their distress cues, they are communicating clearly and making it easier for their parents to respond appropriately.

Perhaps the most noteworthy finding, however, was the influence of symbolic gestures on parent attitudes. The parents that used symbolic gestures felt more confident in their parenting and reported reduced levels of stress. Once again, a few factors may contribute to these findings. It is known that families who use symbolic gestures use more eye-contact, a key social tool for emotional connection in parent-child communication. Therefore, teaching children symbolic gestures may enhance the sense of interconnectedness between parents and their children. Furthermore, the use of symbolic gestures allows children to express themselves with greater clarity, helping parents feel confident that they understand their child’s needs.

Can my family benefit from using more symbolic gestures?

Symbolic gestures are something we use every day to enhance our communication. Children may benefit from learning symbolic gestures because it gives them another way to express themselves. Very young children may use symbolic gestures before they have verbal language while older children may use symbolic gestures to clarify their communication. Parents also benefit by using symbolic gestures. The use of eye contact helps parents feel emotionally connected to their children and helps them respond to their children’s communication. This helps parents feel like they are responsible parents and effective communicators, increasing their confidence while decreasing their stress.

The best news is that you don’t have to learn a million new gestures to benefit from symbolic gestures. In the studies above, the families used around seven to ten symbolic gestures in total. So, it is not the quantity of gestures used, but the quality. Try choosing a few symbolic gestures from the chart below in your daily routine!

They are easy to use with these three simple rules:

1.Repetition. Try to use the same gesture consistently in your communication.

2. Practice. As with any new communication skill, it takes practice to master!

3. Have fun! Symbolic gestures should help your communication and reduce stress! As long as you’re engaging with their child and having fun, you’re already on the right track!



Góngora, Ximena, & Farkas, Chamarrita. (2009). Infant sign language program effects on synchronic mother–infant interactions. Infant Behavior and Development, 32(2), 216-225.

Goodwyn, S., Acredolo, W., & Brown, L. (2000). Impact of Symbolic Gesturing on Early Language Development. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 24(2), 81-103.

Vallotton, C. (2012). Infant signs as intervention? Promoting symbolic gestures for preverbal children in low-income families supports responsive parent–child relationships. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 27(3), 401-415.