Monday, July 18, 2011

Speaking Respectfully To a Toddler: Easy Phrases For Big Effects

Photo by Alex Bruda
The way we speak to children (or anyone!) can have a dramatic effect on the response we get from them. Toddlers in particular are most responsive when they feel independent yet connected. In order to show respect for my toddler as an individual, I need to talk as if he is a competent listener. In order to connect, I need to be honest in what I say.

I didn't have good role models for healthy communication so it's a big challenge for me to find the balance between assertiveness and responsiveness. However, I've found that with just a few simple adjustments to how I talk, Munchkin is more likely to listen and respond to my requests. These verbal skills are also in line with my desire to be a responsive, attached, and unconditional parent so I feel good about them. Here are some of the speech patterns that have improved my communication with my toddler:

 I use toddler-talk, not baby-talk. A specific type of baby talk called parentese is a natural and healthy way to communicate with infants. However, toddlers are not infants. They don't need really parentese anymore. They need clear, succinct language. The British Council has some great suggestions on how to use parentese with an older child who isn't fluent in the language you're speaking (i.e. a toddler or non-native speaker). This is pretty much how I talk to Munchkin. It feels more natural and I'm able to maintain this speech style throughout the endless hours we spend together. I save the sing-songy cadence, higher pitch, and embellished syllables for play time (or play used to gain cooperation). 

I use appropriate pronouns. The common parental phrase, "We don't..." is vague and poses the risk of inviting the response, either in words or behavior, "Well, maybe you guys don't, but I do!" Instead, I say what I mean: "Please don't..." or "You may not..." or "I won't let you.."

Referring to myself or Munchkin in the third person isn't assertive or demonstrative of the way people really speak to each other. Frankly, it's also a bit condescending (how would it sound if I talked to adults that way?). Instead of "Mommy doesn't like it when..." or "Do you want Mommy to help you?" I say "I don't like it when..." and "Do you want me to help you?"

When I started using correct pronouns awhile back, I noticed an immediate difference: I felt more confident, more respectful, and more natural. I also noticed that Munchkin became more responsive to my requests. For a toddler coming to terms with his own autonomy, the distinction between "you" and "I" is profound. I think he appreciates the respect it grants him when he hears those words from me.

I use precise wording. I try to be as accurate as I can with my words when talking to Munchkin, especially when making a request. I say specific things like "Will you please stop running so I can put your shirt on?" or "It's time for Mary to have a turn with the ball now" or "Please do not throw sand."  I avoid abstract statements such as "I need you to cooperate" or "You need to share" or "Stop misbehaving". Generalizations make the task seem larger than it is to a toddler, and they make it difficult for him to determine what he is actually supposed to do. It shows respect for the listener and for myself when I kindly and plainly ask for what I want rather than insinuating. The best part of being precise is that it requires me to really think about what I'm asking of Munchkin. What behavior or action am I talking about? Is it really something worth pointing out? Am I just annoyed, embarrassed, or feeling out of control? Is it critical that he do it now? Can I let it go or is it a teachable moment?

For me, this way of talking to my toddler has been highly effective. We are better connected for it. I've noticed that Munchkin is less likely to connect with another adult who radically changes the way she speaks when addressing him.  He immediately picks up on the obvious difference between speech directed at him and another adult. He seems to sense when he's being talked down to and isn't very responsive to the speaker. I'm guessing he's grown accustomed to being spoken to with respect for his personhood and developmental abilities. I like that about him. And yes, I'm just a little proud of it, too.

There are certainly many other communication skills I can and will work on. Starting with the basics at least gives me a good foundation and, more importantly, the confidence in my ability to speak to my son with love and respect.

Update October 2013: These strategies still work with Munchkin, who is now almost four years old. I especially appreciate the reminder to be precise with words because of the cascade of self-reflection it requires. What am I really trying to say? Why? Of course, we now have more sophisticated issues around communication, but that's a topic for another post!

What speech patterns to you use that improve communication with your child?


  1. Yes! I have found that using statements like "I will not let you..." Hit me, throw that etc. is helpful in getting the point across as well as generating respect from my daughter. When this happens, she has her yell of frustration (which I allow her to have!) and she's over it. It's true that when we speak and treat our toddlers with respect, they in turn talk and treat us with that same respect. I have also, when possible, used statements that emphasizes what she can do. Her spirit is as vibrant as ever, funny that the friends and family who don't "support" peaceful parenting don't see the correlation....

  2. @AnneMarie, I like the idea of also including things your daughter CAN do. It sounds like a great way to empower her, which seems to matter even more if she's being told she cannot do something else.

    I agree, so much of it is about building mutual respect between parent and child!