Before having kids, I had no idea how complicated the English language could be. When not mommying, I’m a linguist trained in nine languages plus dialects–but learning to speak Toddler remains my proudest language-related accomplishment. The challenge Toddler poses is not the unusual syntax, the unique pronunciation, or the rampant pronoun confusion, but the surprisingly significant psychological demands placed on an adult communicating with a being of ages, say, 14-40 months. While by no means do I consider myself Toddler-proficient (despite the inescapable logic of “but I was once a toddler too”), I do feel like I have a good enough grasp of the general skills requisite for speaking Toddler to be able to shine some light on them.
This is perhaps the ultimate quality desirable in a non-child Toddler speaker. Toddlers are known for their capricious and whimsical natures, and engaging them with the expectation of instant cooperation is risky business. One of the most successful examples of coping with this unpredictability is determining when a Toddler is resisting your requests either on purpose or because your words just aren’t getting through. If the latter, bear in mind that this happens especially when a tot has no particular opposition to your proposal other than she bears particular descriptive phrasing in mind, and you’re just not tapping into that. No matter how appealing the rest of your statement is, if you are so stiff that you cannot spin on a dime and recast your request in more toddler-friendly phrasing, then you will meet with but limited success. Here is an example from my own experience to help limber you up:
me: “It’s time for lunch.”
her: “I don’t want lunch. I don’t like lunch. Never, ever. Lunch is awful.”
me: “Okay, no lunch, then, that’s fine.”
me: “Oh hey, it’s time for a snack.”
her: *sits down at table*
You’ve probably lived many a similar experience. Isn’t is amazing how strategic use of particular vocabulary makes the “awful” suddenly so appealing?
Related to this need for flexibility is Toddler’s strong emphasis on key words, and accompanying implication that adults employ them to their advantage. By latching on to the words with greatest semantic value, one can instantly transform a whining, foot-dragging toddler into an eager contributor to family harmony. At our house, “sparkly,” “princess,” “teenager,” “babysitter,” and “ballerina” all each enjoyed a certain measure of consequence, so slipping them into a conversation was a surefire way to capture my toddler’s attention. In moments of desperation, I have been known to lay it on pretty thick–and even my stubborn, determined, and confident little girl was no match for the big guns, as in, “Hmm, I wonder how a sparkly teenager babysitter princess ballerina would carry this laundry upstairs.”* Now, if only these key words weren’t subject to the capriciousness mentioned above; it can be hard to keep track of the most effective ones at any given time. With practice, though, and covert efforts (don’t blow it by overly-suggestive intonation, or a too-meaningful glance!), you’ll be in business.
* For the record, I personally am of the persuasion that kids should do chores, because everyone does chores, because everyone lives here. But not every moment is suitable for conveying my deeply-held philosophy about this matter. Sometimes I just want the laundry put away and I want her to see her own body doing it.
Ok, hold on. I can feel some of you getting your sparkly princess panties in a twist. Am I advocating you lure your children into listening to you by putting things as they aren’t, or by indulging some fleeting fantasy on their part? No, no. I simply recommend, in a word, that you offer them the respect to meet them where they’re at. It’s natural in our culture to speak in “Parentese,” the exaggerated intonations, cooing, and babbling we so instinctively offer to our babies, so indulge away! There is no particular advantage, however, to using nonsense like “wawie” or “kiki” (water, cookie). The jury is still out on whether it’s harmful to dumb down our adult language to accommodate our perception of Toddler, but preliminary research (and my own intuition) convinces me that children are intellectually better off, and may feel more valued and included, when adults consistently demonstrate standard English. So if you want to get your toddler’s attention, address him like the full being he is, someone worthy of your respect, consideration, and good diction. On a related note, kids in general seem to get the short end of the stick when it comes to adults’ conscious respect of their personhood, especially in terms of how we talk to them, so anything you can do to undo this collective bad habit is a valuable and needed effort.
Alright folks that’s all I’ve got on this issue for now. There are lots of ways we can talk to get our toddlers to listen better. Some of them involve cookies. Others require us to get inside their brilliant little brains and beat them at their own game. For their own good, of course. Now if you’ll excuse me–I have to go make dinner. I mean snack. A really sparkly snack!
I’ve done some pretty hard brainy stuff in my life. I went to an elite boarding school, where I maxed out the French curriculum and took the hardest chemistry classes available. I graduated college in three years, then successfully competed for fancy academic grants like the Fulbright. But none of this nerdy stuff, absolutely none of it, compares to the intellectual rigor required by raising a kid.
Coordinating just three people donning of multiple layers of outwear, once you factor in the potty trips, drinks of water, and loose hair elastics needing correction, ranks with the efforts of a conductor managing a full symphony orchestra.