A few months ago, I was out wearing my then 15-month-old son when a woman came up to us. “Oh, my goodness! Look how cute!” Before I could thank her for the compliment, she bent down closer to my son's face and started shouting enthusiastic gibberish at him. He gave her a puzzled look, then turned the other way. “So cute, but not very friendly, I guess?” It took all my self-control not to laugh — or to respond to her with the same gibberish she'd just directed at him. I think adults should talk to kids like normal people and, by the looks of it, my toddler agrees.
Now, before anyone assumes I'm advocating talking to our kids like we're doing our taxes together or something like that, I should clarify. I'm not at all opposed to what researchers call “infant-directed speech,” the instinctive way most people tend to do things like over-enunciate their words and vary their pitch at an increased rate when talking to babies. That actually makes our speech more interesting for them to listen to, and helps them learn language by making our speech a bit clearer, and making the emotional content of our language more apparent.
But the random gibberish? Using infant-directed speech with older children? Or just opting out of talking to children more generally? Yeah, not as helpful. If we want kids to learn language to the best of their ability, we have to use it with them as often as possible, and model what normal, respectful conversation looks like. The following are just a few reasons why it’s important to talk to your kid (or any kid) like you’d talk to an adult or any other person, though I’m sure folks could think of plenty more.
Kids Learn Language From Us
Every time we talk to our kids is a chance for us to help them learn grammar, syntax, vocabulary, and more. We don’t need to go out of our way to take classes on how to be language instructors or anything, we just have to talk to them, using real language instead of nonsensical sounds. Young brains are really powerful when it comes to language learning (and everything else), so they can take it from there.
Kids Learn Social Norms From Us
When kids see us switch from ordinary language to saccharine gibberish when we start speaking to smaller people, they lose an opportunity to learn and participate in normal conversation. (They also learn that it's "normal" to essentially not speak to children, which means they may end up internalizing this habit, too.)
Nobody Likes To Be Patronized
There's a reason why adults frequently get angry when they believe someone is "talking to them like a child." It's patronizing. But kids don't like to be patronized any more than anyone else does. Do kids need more guidance and supervision than other folks? Of course. But that doesn't require us to talk down to them. Kids are typically less knowledgeable than people with more life experience, but they're not fundamentally less intelligent. We can talk to them about what's going on around them, and answer their questions, just like we would anyone else.
It’s Easier To Understand
Kids are working really hard to figure out the vast number of sounds, linguistic rules, and norms of their native language. Hearing the people around them use the aforementioned consistently helps them hear, understand, and apply them. "Goo goo gaa gaa wook at da wittle baaaaby!" doesn't.
Parenthood Has Enough Daily Indignities
As parents of young children, we are frequently peed, pooped, and puked on. Before our kids are capable of blowing their own noses, we often have to use specially-made devices to literally suck the snot out of their faces. Parenthood has enough little embarrassments without us voluntarily adding a totally optional one — making strange sounds at our kids — to the list.
Kids Already Feel “Othered” In The World
Kids are smaller and less physically adept than the people our world is built around: able-bodied adults. It's a drag to constantly be reminded that you're not able (or allowed) to fully participate in the world, and that's part of the ever-looming frustration that makes it so physically and emotionally challenging to be a young person (aka sets them up for tantrums and meltdowns). Being spoken to like you're less intelligent than everyone else around you only compounds that frustration.
It Helps Them Develop Problem-Solving Skills
Hearing "AwwwWhassaMattawww?" when they get hurt (probably after walking in one direction and looking in another) doesn't help a child figure out how not to do that again. Offering help and/or a hug while saying something like, "Are you OK? I saw you bump into the sofa; it looked like that hurt. It's so important to always look where we're going," does. Using clear language, and actually talking to them about what's happening to them, helps them figure out the connections between actions and consequences, and how to prevent and solve problems.
It Helps Them Develop Emotional Language And Literacy
Similarly, talking to kids when they're having an emotional challenge or interpersonal conflict — "Someone else is playing with the toy you really wanted, and now you're feeling frustrated" — helps them learn to identify and understand their feelings in a way that vaguely sympathetic-sounding gibberish just doesn't.
It Helps Them Practice Conversation More Generally
Practice makes perfect, with holding a conversation as with anything else. Even as an older baby, I was consistently amazed by how much my son could understand and participate, even before he had many words. When he first started pulling up at around seven months, I could say to him, "Can you show me how you stand up?" and he'd proudly pull up. Babies and kids often understand a lot more than they're given credit for, and they're often eager to feel capable and show us what they can do. The more we help them practice listening and responding to our words, the better they get at it.
It Just Makes Things Easier
From baby gates to outlet covers to car seats in our "family-friendly" vehicles, we already make tons of changes in our lives to accommodate our kids. How we talk doesn't have to be one of them. Sure, we need to explain certain concepts to them in age-appropriate ways (just like we'd tailor any other novel explanation to any other audience, regardless of age). But we don't need to have a whole different way of talking to our kids, when we could just speak to them like normal humans — and in the process, show them the same respect we show everyone else in our lives.