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Talking & Listening

Dear Debi,
When I talk to my 18-month-old son, sometimes it’s clear he understands but other times he just looks at me as if he doesn’t. What is the best way to communicate with him?
Roy Adams
Debi's Tips
Debi Gutierrez
Debi Gutierrez
  • Listen carefully to what she has to say
  • Let your child experiment with language
  • Be patient when having a conversation with your child
  • Ask open-ended questions
  • Talk with & listen to your child the way you want him to talk & listen to you
  • Expert Advice
    Ellen Frede, Ph.D.
    Ellen Frede, Ph.D.
    National Inst. for Early Education Research
    How you talk and listen to a child is so important because language is the most important thing a young child will learn. All future learning will come from language. Language is the first step towards social development. Establish mutual respect and trust between you and your child. How you talk and listen to your child not only helps your child acquire language, but establishes and models how you want him to talk and listen with you. This helps children feel more open, secure, loved and listened to.

    Talking to Infants
    A baby is born wired to want to listen to language. Adults intuitively speak to babies in “parent-ese” – a raised pitch of the voice. This is true throughout the world and across all cultures. Babies hear this tone best. Speak in this raised tone, but don’t speak to a baby using baby talk. Speak to a baby as a conversational partner, even though the baby cannot converse yet. Pause after speaking to the baby as if waiting for a response. This begins to teach the baby turn-taking and the patterns of language in conversation.

    Use “parent-ese” to describe what you are doing with the baby or ask questions and self-answer. For example, say, “What are you doing with the ball? That is right, you’re pushing the ball, pushing the ball…”

    As the baby begins to understand simple language, practice “joint attention.” Be aware of what the baby is looking at as he or she makes sounds and respond with the appropriate word for the object. This comes quite naturally to most parents.

    Babies are born to hear all languages. If the home is bilingual or trilingual, then speak to the baby in all languages. Babies pick up on these different sounds and languages. People used to think that this would be confusing to a baby, but that’s simply not true. It’s not confusing. A baby’s brain is like a sponge. Infancy is a great time to offer different languages.

    Talking to Toddlers
    As children start to produce language, you should always talk slightly above the child’s vocabulary. Children will quickly pick up on vocabulary at this time.

    When a toddler speaks, respond with a more expanded version of what the child said. While the child may be putting words together to communicate, respond to the child in full sentences so that the toddler will begin to understand how sentences are put together.

    For toddlers, ask more questions. As the child points, ask, “Can you tell me what you want? Milk? What do you want?”

    Don’t correct a toddler’s language. They are experimenting with language at this time. Instead of telling the child that he is wrong, respond with the correct language. So if a child says, “I roded my bike” – respond by saying “I’m so glad you rode your bike.” Continue joint attention with a toddler. Pay attention to both their words and cues.

    Don’t underestimate your child’s language skills at this age. Get to their eye level and make eye-to-eye contact. This probably means squatting down to their level. Use the child’s name if you’re asking them to do something.

    Ask open-ended questions, rather than questions that require one-word responses. Don’t over-explain. Simple explanations may be more effective than long discussions.

    Listen carefully to children. This builds their self-esteem. It tells them that they are important and that we care about what they’re thinking and feeling.

    At this age children will misuse words. They are trying out language. Don’t tell them, “No, that’s not the right word.” They are experimenting. They will eventually get closer and closer to the correct meaning of words.

    Asking a Child to Follow a Request
    When asking a child to follow a request, first, make sure that your request is understandable. For example, a three-year-old typically cannot follow multiple requests. Their short-term memory is not fully developed. Make sure that you have the child’s attention. Don’t loom over them – get down on their level and make sure you have eye contact. Use the child’s name if you’re asking them to do something. For example, ask, “Cindy, will you…”

    Use “I” messages, rather than starting the request with “you.” Say, “I would like you to…” rather than, “You need to…” Speak to your child in the manner you would want him to speak to you and to others.

    Don’t end your sentence with “OK?” unless you are ready for your child to say “No.” Don’t talk the child down. The louder his voice gets, the softer you should respond. This tells the child that you are in control and avoids escalating a power struggle or argument. Finally, don’t get angry with the child if he or she doesn’t follow the request perfectly the first time.

    Talking to an Upset Child
    When talking to a child who is upset, first acknowledge their emotions. Before you try to talk to the child, say, “You’re really angry right now, so I’m going to let you stomp your feet.” You can’t really teach a crying child or a child experiencing any extreme emotion. Help your child cope with their feelings before you try giving them any type of instructions.
    Child Care Provider Comments
    Nikki Maxwell
    Nikki Maxwell
    Breastfeeding her third child
    I work hard to establish good communication in the house. The girls will often want me to come in the bathroom to have private talking time. What that means is I will ask if they have any questions or if they have any issues they want to talk about. We also talk at dinner and breakfast. Those times allow for open communication to occur. I will listen for hotspots during those times, so that I can follow up and support whatever the issue is.
    Marianella Hickery
    Marianella Hickery
    Child care provider for 20 years
    Every single morning during circle time, we go over our feelings. Everyone talks about what happened yesterday and how they are feeling. We teach the kids that it is important for them to express themselves. I have some cards with different faces and the kids choose what face they feel that morning.
    Fred Hodge
    Fred Hodge
    Grandfather of five
    I am always very attentive when it comes to my grandchildren because if I don’t hear them, then their frustration builds. I listen to their stories. I let them talk it out if they are upset. It gives me a good picture of what is going on. When I listen to them, they trust me. I want them to get used to talking about their troubles and issues and not hide them. We look each other in the eyes and, sometimes, I hold them or put them in my lap and put my arms around them. I want them to be comfortable with affection, so it is easy to talk with them.

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    Topic: Child Development
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