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How to Talk to a Toddler

Confused Kid

I’ll be honest – before I became a parent, I had a hell of a time interacting with small children. Kids who were still in the midst of learning to talk, but had learned a few words and used them frequently (and, not surprisingly, sometimes incorrectly). Tell me if this situation sounds familiar…

You show up at a holiday meal, one where there are truckloads of extended family congregating from miles around. Your second cousin Todd and his lovely wife Claire arrive with their little girl, Eunice, who is 2 years old. She runs over to you and immediately takes a liking to you. She starts yammering on, mostly babble to you – though, you think you can catch the word “puppy” in there someplace. You’re constantly looking to Mom and Dad to translate for their young daughter. For some (myself included), this can be a somewhat uncomfortable situation. You don’t want to come off like an ass by trying to pawn the kid off on somebody else, but you are also genuinely interested in this child despite the “language barrier”.

I’ll let you in on a little secret: a toddler trying to speak to an adult is not the same thing as an American trying to find a bathroom in Calcutta. The kid isn’t (normally) getting frustrated by the fact that you don’t seem to get what they’re saying.

So, with that in mind, here are some pointers and tips you can use when talking to a kid that can’t really talk yet:

  • Listen – Since painting a word picture for a toddler is usually an exercise in futility, let them steer the ship. And it doesn’t matter that you can’t make out most of the words, focus on the ones you *do* understand. If you hear “pony” in there, ask her if she likes “horsies” (since that’s probably how she knows them).
  • Ask Questions – One of the simplest way to get a kid involved is to get them to talk about things they know and like. For example, look at what they’re wearing or holding. More often than not, they have on an outfit with some type of picture on it – a dinosaur or pickup truck, or maybe a farm animal or a puppy. “Say, that’s a nice [subject] – do you like [subject]s?”. Again, the response may not be coherent but at least they’re talking.
  • Keep it Simple, Stupid – If you go the route of asking questions, keep them simple and easy to understand. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a non-parent acquaintance of mine ask a kid something like “have you been to the aquarium?” or “do mommy and daddy let you have french fries?”. Either the subject matter is completely foreign to them or just a little to abstract. Stick to things you’re fairly certain the kid knows a little something about.

Simple games work well, too. Start clapping your hands and see if they’ll follow along. The old “high five” works wonders with little boys, since it’s typically one of the first “grown-up” maneuvers they can execute consistently. Obviously, this presupposes that you’ve got a certain amount of rapport with the kid and his/her parents. Walking up to a unknown kid and offering a friendly game of paddy-cake could very well result in you staring down the business end of a pissed-off father (or worse, a pissed-off mother).

One thing to remember is that kids are fickle creatures. Don’t be the least bit surprised if they abruptly end your interaction by doing an about-face and hauling ass over to one of their parents (or maybe to something they find more interesting than you). Obviously, you shouldn’t take this personally (and some people do, believe me). Just enjoy the time you do spend with them.

Kids are a blast once you can kinda figure them out. Hopefully this stuff helps a little!

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