I have had a couple of different experiences with L in the past few months that inspired me to write this post about why we use real words with our children instead of using baby talk or dumbing down facts. Maria Montessori observed that the sensitive period for language is between birth and 6 years of age. This is a period of time when the child is absorbing EVERYTHING language-related, so what you say to her really matters.
We’ll begin with a trip to the dentist. I had a routine dental cleaning in December, and I decided to bring L along to help prepare her for her own first cleaning — she would be able to see exactly what would happen so she wouldn’t be frightened when it was her turn.
As I lay in the chair, the dental hygienist looked at L, and in a sickly sweet voice explained, “I’m just going to clean your Mommy’s teefers.”
L looked at me and said, “What did she say?”
The hygienist replied, “I’m just going to shine my light in here so I can make your Mommy’s teefers nice and clean.”
I watched L’s eyes widen in alarm. I could see the thoughts whirling around inside her tiny head. What the heck are teefers?! Where are Mommy’s teefers? Do I have teefers? Does it hurt to clean teefers?!
I smiled at L and said, “It’s ok, she’s just cleaning my teeth.”
She immediately relaxed and went about looking at the toothbrushes they give out at the end of dentists appointments.
We don’t use the word “teefers” at home — because it’s not a real word. We talk about our “teeth” all the time. We don’t use ANY baby talk in our home — because it’s not necessary. Children are ALWAYS listening to adults. They hear the way you talk to your spouse or to your adult friends. Have you ever been shocked by some nasty vulgarities coming out of your sweet little one’s mouth? She heard that from YOU. Children already know the real terms for things, because they have heard you saying them when you discuss things with other adults. So there’s no point to dumbing things down — it just makes it scary because that is a word they haven’t heard before.
Second story: We enjoyed a day at the local science museum last month, and one of L’s favorite displays was one filled with animals that live in our area. There was a snake inside one of the displays, and L quickly spotted a smaller box beside it that contained the snake’s skin. As she peered through the magnifying glass at the snakeskin, the lady in charge of the exhibit tried to explain it to her.
She said, “Those are the snake’s clothes.”
L replied, “Clothes? Where?” She searched and searched for some clothes, but she didn’t see any.
The lady said, “That skin is like the snake’s clothes. Just like that dress you’re wearing. When the snake grows too big for his clothes, he takes them off so he can wear new clothes.”
L was becoming pretty frustrated because she definitely did not see any clothes at all, let alone a dress like the one she was wearing.
I said, “Look, L. That’s snake skin. When the snake grows too big for its skin, it grows new skin underneath and pushes the old skin off of its body. They took the old skin and put it into this container so we could look at it!”
I don’t know when the last time you spoke to a toddler was, but they are highly literal. When I tell L to “turn around” so I can button the back of her shirt, she spins around in a full circle. When I tell her to “hold that up” so I can see something better, she holds it all the way up over her head. Using analogies such as comparing a snake skin to the clothes that people wear is a great teaching tool — FOR OLDER CHILDREN. For toddlers, you need to say exactly what you mean.
When you know how your child will react to the careless way you say things, you can change your patterns of speech to respect the way she hears you.* For more on the importance of language at an even earlier age, read Language with Infants — Respect.
*I don’t mean “careless” in a judgmental or negative way — just that it is easy to speak without truly considering how a young toddler will understand your words. When you speak “carefully,” you take that into account to avoid confusing or scary messages.