The Intuitive Art of Speaking with Young Children

As parents, we find ourselves constantly conversing, cajoling, comforting, refraining, guiding, joking and explaining. We develop this art of childspeak “on the job” and most often without realizing we are doing it. Intuitively we identify and respond to the tone and level of our children’s needs and queries. It starts when sing and coo to our babies, when we mimic their first sounds and narrate our actions. As our toddlers make meaning from words, we experience the joy of deeper, closer communication and we build on it. We weave a family language through which they view their world and upon which they construct their sense of self. Below are some of the conversational avenues through which we enhance our children’s experience:

BUILDING VOCABULARY BY INTEGRATING IT: A recent study by professor of education Catherine Snow in the current Harvard Magazine shows that children’s vocabulary at age five very reliably predicts the number of words they know in sixth grade. In other words, early language learning is key. “We know from a number of tests that a very good predictor of success in literacy is oral language skills. So if kids are limited in oral language skills that enable them to understand story that’s read aloud, or to tell a story about an event in their own lives, then they will have difficulty accessing meaning in the texts they learn how to read in first grade.” Professor Snow encourages parents to use “sophisticated vocabulary” integrating new words and concepts with daily activities: describing how to tie a shoe, for example, or as we do in our gym, how to crawl over, under or through a hurdle.

BUILDING TRUST BY KEEPING OUR WORD:By keeping our word, we let children know that we can be relied on. When we tell them it’s “almost time” to eat, go out or get dressed, we need to keep our word and allow a few moments before initiating that transition. Likewise, “If you let daddy finish these dishes, I’ll read you a story,” is a promise not to be broken. We may give our toddler a warning: “If you keep throwing those blocks, I’ll have to put them away”. When he gives that yellow square one more toss, we’re obliged to return them to the shelf, despite his wails and protests. (This does not mean that after some calm conversation they can’t be returned, but only once a renewed agreement has been reached.) Easier said than done, of course, and at times the difference between harsh and firm may feel blurred. Yet limits are a gift and our children want to trust in what we tell them; they want to know that we grown-ups keep our word.

PRESERVING THEIR SELF-ESTEEM BY ACKNOWLEDGING THE DEED, NOT THE DOER: When a reprimand or redirection is called for, our words are most effective, and most kind, when they address the action, not the child; the deed not the doer. The deed can always be amended; the doer is the child herself. Our misbehaving preschooler may listen more readily when we describe the impact of their actions: “That’s not okay, Herman. It could hurt someone.” Or if we suggest another option: “Leave that right there. We’ll find something else to play with.” Or intervene forcefully when safety demands it: “I want you to stop playing so roughly!” In a similar way, we reinforce our children’s positive behaviors. We might respond to our child’s tasting a new food, helping a little brother or putting on her shoes with words such as, “Good job!” “Just right!” or “What a great help that was!”

MOVING SMOOTHLY THROUGH THE DAY:Children listen closely as we narrate their world: as we describe a classmate’s behavior, or his mother’s, as we help them to anticipate a shopping trip or explain the need for those seemingly arbitrary events like dinner and bed times. It is our framing of the event that resonates. We can aim for partnership, a chore that can be fun if done together or a disappointment less hurtful because we share it. We can hold on to our respect for the classmate who grabbed our daughter’s toy or drew on her picture. “That was not nice of Elsa…. and she is usually a good friend to you.” Other times, a simple, clear reason will do the trick. “It’s a job we need to do now.” “It’s time for dinner. Let’s see what we have”

SHARING OUR LOVE:he most obvious and important of all our conversations! There are many, many ways we share our love with our children: through a giggle, a tickle, a goodnight kiss; a treat, a hug or a trip to the playground. Using our family’s childspeak, we tell them how great they are: how big and beautiful, smart and funny, strong and well-behaved. We tell them that they’re the very best kid in the whole world. We say, “I love you!” over and over and over again.