talking to your child like an adult

Why Talking To Your Child Like An Adult Is A Good Thing

Worried you’re blinding your kids for science? Don’t be.  Getting technical with “dad speak” and talking to your child like an adult is good for their development.

Do you get frowned at for talking to your child like they’re an adult? Do you get that pity-ridden shake of the head from people who think you have no idea how to speak to your own kids? I have some good news for you: you’re doing the right thing.

Mark VanDam, a professor in the Department of Speech & Hearing Sciences at Washington State University, suggests that dads talking to their kids as if they’re talking to an adult is a good thing. While mums tend to vary the pitch of their voice and use “motherese”, or baby talk, dads tend to use the same pitch, language and intonation with their kids as with adults. VanDam calls this the “bridge hypothesis”. When dads use big words and complicated ideas with their children they are acting as a link to the wider world by teaching them to handle unfamiliar speech.

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So, when you’re explaining the offside rule to your two-year-old, you’re actually doing them a favour. Your child is benefitting from just hearing your voice. The lower pitch, the more complicated language, the way you structure a long sentence in answer to a simple question, is all good. I once got a friend’s crying baby to sleep by cuddling him and pacing the kitchen explaining the polar moment of inertia in Formula One cars.

And it’s not just speech they’re learning. Dads read and play different things, in different ways, to mums. So, you can look on your one-to-one time with your child as a chance to expand their horizons. Kids learn from dads just by their proximity to them. You can teach your child through stealth.

Playing with cars is, on the face of it, just playing with cars. It’s also a great opportunity to get some dad-speak in. Don’t hold back on describing how an engine works or giving them a lesson on the history of the Mercedes 280 SL. If you build some ramps and experiment with which cars go down which ramp quickest you’ve got a physics lesson going on. If you’re playing with them in a sandpit you can explain how sand is made. Most of it what you say will go over their heads but that’s OK.

Baking or cooking with your child is a brilliant opportunity to provide some bridge hypothesis learning. If you’re adventurous enough to make things from scratch you’ve got plenty of opportunity to get some stealthy knowledge in there.

I recently made Pain Au Chocolat with my son. I bought one of those kits that has a tube of dough and the chocolate sticks to go inside. When we tore open the tube and the dough spilled out my son asked my how the dough got into the tube. So, I explained it to him. In detail. Machine this and factory that, I didn’t dumb it down at all. He didn’t understand it all but that’s not the point. He heard words he didn’t know and his little synapses fired up.

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We divided the dough and the chocolate which was an opportunity for a bit of maths. As they cooked we talked about why they were rising, the process of the butter creating steam etc. I wasn’t conscious of doing or explaining things any differently to how his mum would, but I was. It wasn’t a deliberate process, just part of spending time with dad.

It’s the same with Lego. When my son’s creation falls over or apart I start talking about counter balancing or structural integrity. Again, it’s not a conscious thing, it’s just how I talk to my son. And that’s the point. Dads should talk to their kids like this. I believe there’s a second aspect to the bridge hypothesis though: You should be prepared to explain yourself. I’ll give you an example.

I suggested that my son had a flair for architecture when he built a very elaborate dinosaur cage from Lego. He asked me what architecture meant. I could have told him not to worry about it, that it was a grown-up word that he didn’t need to understand. But that’s a wasted opportunity. So, I talked to my son about how buildings were designed. He had a lot more questions to which didn’t know the answers, so we looked them up.

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I got my tablet out and we sat on the sofa and learnt together. We watched videos about concrete pouring and how to re-wire a house. The conversation took an odd spin when my son announced that he was worried about the houses that didn’t have chimneys. He was concerned that Santa wouldn’t be able to get in to deliver presents. Instead of dismissing his worry I asked him what he’d like to find out, typed his question into Google and we spent ten minutes reading about Santa’s magic.

It was about half an hour before we got back to playing Lego – half an hour of stealth learning and dad speak. He won’t remember most of the information we looked at, but hopefully he’ll remember that it’s OK to ask questions.

So, when someone frowns at you for overcomplicating things for your child you can be assured you’re doing the right thing. Both baby talk (motherese) and dad-speak are essential for a child’s speech development. So, when you’re moaning about the road works on the school run don’t shout at the road, ask your kid what they think about it. It’s probably best to keep the swearing to a minimum though.

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