How to Talk to Little Kids … Without Dumbing It Down

Just because the kids are little doesn't mean your words have to be.

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Dana Villamagna, Toca Magazine Writer
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Talking to kids is the easiest way to help them develop strong vocabulary and conversational skills. But sometimes adults change the way we talk to young kids based on the misguided notion that they can’t understand “big words” or proper sentence structure.

That’s absolutely not necessary, or true. In fact, instead of dumbing down what you say, pump it up! It’s more fun for you and better for your kid. Here’s why:

If you’ve ever been around a young kid who’s a dinosaur lover, you know that their ability to learn, say and retain big words is remarkable. “Brachiosaurus” and “Diplodocus” roll off a 4-year-old dino lover’s tongue as easily as “ball” and “dog.” Kids love subjects that have many complex names associated with them — cars, Pokemon characters, geometric shapes, dog breeds.

Some educational theories assert that children’s language development is in a sensitive period from birth to around age 5. That’s why young kids can learn a second language much more easily than people who try later in life. There’s never a better time to absorb language than in those first five years.

There’s never a better time to absorb language than in the first five years.

Good, but misguided, intentions

So why do parents, teachers and other adults who interact with kids often assume that they can’t converse with kids using complex words and sentences as they would with any other person? It’s my observation that when adults talk to kids they often intentionally use simple words, limit descriptive vocabulary, talk in the third person (“Daddy has to go to work now”) or slow down their rate of speech in a well-meaning attempt to make the conversation more “kid-friendly.”

But when we dumb down our language, kids lose the opportunity to pick up new vocabulary and practice verbal and conversational skills at a crucial time in their language development.

Stanford University psychology professor Anne Fernald’s work on language development in infants and young children has discovered that parents who speak directly to their kids using high-quality language help their kids’ language processing skills “with cascading benefits for vocabulary learning.”

When we dumb down our language, kids lose the opportunity to pick up new vocabulary and practice verbal and conversational skills.

More kids’ media are catching on

Promisingly, more children’s media — books, educational shows, websites and apps — seem to be aware of kids’ capacity and hunger for complex language, perhaps taking a cue from Charlotte’s Web author E.B. White who said, “Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down.”

My most recent favorite children’s book is Glamourpuss by Sarah Weeks, in which the cat didn’t “go down the stairs,” she “descended,” and she gave looks of “haughty disdain.” That’s fun, rich language, and kids absorb it like sponges.

I’m not saying we should artificially insert $5 words into conversations with our kids. And, of course, talking to kids without dumbing down language isn’t the same as including them in everything we talk about. Scary, confusing topics are for adult ears only. For very serious subjects that must be shared with kids, parents may want to consult a child psychologist or other support resource for how to talk about it using developmentally appropriate language.

Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down.

Show egalitarian respect

Except for the above noted exceptions, however, just talk to kids without simplifying. They will ask you to explain what a word means from time to time, not because they can’t understand its meaning but simply because they haven’t been exposed to it yet. One truly useful kid-friendly adjustment we can make when talking to kids is reducing our level of elevation. Physically bending, squatting or sitting down to be at their eye level enhances communication and shows egalitarian respect.

Bottom line: If we dumb down our language around kids, we lose golden opportunities to help them develop naturally confident, accurate and expressive communication. We can talk to kids just as if we were talking to any other person. Unless the kid wants to talk about dinosaurs. Or cars. Then they may have to dumb down the language for me.

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