For toddlers, facts and simplicity are key. Facts contrast with judgments and opinions. Simplicity contrasts with being faced with unnecessary choices or even fake “choices” that the child is not actually being invited to make. Too many modern parents and educators, though well-intentioned, speak with very young children in ways that may be unhelpful and unsuitable. After understanding the reasons for this, more helpful communication strategies can be used.
These reasons tie into a larger picture of social difficulties that stem from a troubled relationship with the concepts of both age-appropriateness and authority. A false-choice dichotomy of unhealthy authority versus no authority at all (or authority reserved only for the state), has constricted the space available for the development and practice of healthy authority. Meanwhile, people of all ages have come to be treated in ways unsuitable to their developmental range. We begin with speaking with one-year-olds, and later derive implications for all ages.
Fact and opinion
The very young child, overflowing with curiosity and presence, is the most powerful known learning force. They want to know what they can do by trying to do it. They want to know what to call everyday objects and to know words for the actions they witness and imitate.
The most important linguistic companion to this is the identification of facts and causal relationships that are of interest to the child. What does this look like? The following examples have one-year-olds in mind, but the basic principles also apply in suitable, evolving ways to rising ages.
That’s a dog.
There’s the moon.
You have a bear. You threw the bear down. There he is on the floor.
Look, there’s a ball. You threw that ball. It’s rolling over there.
You’re giving the bear a hug!
Notice that these are statements of fact and identification. They are reassuring in that they conform to observable realities. They are not matters of contention, mystery, or adult whim. The relationship between the observable things and the language used to describe them is largely consistent from day to day. Identification helps make the world, its objects, and the effects of actions take on a consistent and comprehensible shape.
Statements of opinion, in contrast, are things like this:
Oh, you’re such a good thrower.
It’s not right to throw the bear on the ground.
You should throw the ball instead.
Don’t you love the poor bear?
Such statements introduce a layer of verbiage and confusion. What is a “good” throw? What is a good “thrower”? Will a “bad” throw likewise be noted when seen? What are the criteria for distinguishing the two types of throws? What are the ethics of toy animal treatment? How do feelings for the bear relate to the desire to throw something that happens to be in hand?
Compared to stating facts and making concrete observations, stating adult opinions and sharing adult concerns creates a shifting and unfathomable mess of complexity and arbitrariness. It creates a less predictable and comprehensible environment.
Two types of problematic questions
The second major category of linguistic pitfalls concerns asking very young children certain types of questions. There is a good place for questions. This again concerns mainly the identification of facts and relationships. It entails inviting the child to participate by contributing information that they may have or can take steps to discover:
Is there poop in the diaper? (no answer…)
Where is the bear? (search the room…there it is!)
Where is Mike? (peekaboo!)
Such questions should at very young ages be limited to concrete facts and things. Also to be avoided are questions that require more advanced forms of introspection or counterfactual comparison, as well as questions formed in the negative and questions and statements pertaining to abstractions the child could not possibly (yet) comprehend or have any real interest in.
How do you feel about the bear getting thrown down like that?
Don’t you want a clean diaper?
This toy was made in China too. Where was that one made?
Two types of questions in particular should be avoided, each for a distinct reason. The first is invitations to engage in judgments and decisions. The second is fake preference questions, the answer to which the adult is not prepared to respect.
The first type asks the child to step back from the direct experience of acting and learning. It calls on imaginative faculties that will not naturally predominate in consciousness for quite some time and introduces unnecessary decision fatigue.
Do you want to wear the blue pants or the grey ones?
Do you want a banana or an apple?
Would you like to go outside now or stay in?
On reflection, each requires evaluations of non-present alternatives. One has to imagine each alternative based on past experiences, compare the patterns, and then make a forward-looking judgment about what one might prefer in the near future.
These are the types of matters that adults should simply decide. Constantly asking small children to make decisions and judgments places upon them an unnecessary stress and burden to which they are not equipped to easily respond.
Moreover, adults themselves can consider simplifying their own daily decision-making loads by setting themselves up to face fewer such inconsequential choices. For example, Steve Jobs bought a hundred copies of exactly the same sweater and never again had to divert attention to deciding which sweater to wear. One does not have to go to the same extreme, but the principle can be usefully applied. Above all, do not subject small children to the kind of pointless decision fatigue that even adults might consider reducing for themselves.
Whereas a linguistic challenge mentioned earlier was adults speaking in judgments when identifying facts would be more useful; here the adult is trying to get the child to make judgments and decisions when the child is mainly interested in present facts and identifications. Instead:
We’re putting on pants. They’re blue.
Here’s a bite of banana.
Second, this brings us to the worst offender of all—the fake question. Here, even though the adult has already decided that, for example, it is time to go outside, the adult nevertheless introduces the topic this way:
Would you like to go outside now?
If the child says yes, this kind of works, but what if they say no? Since the adult was already committed to going outside, they are left in the awkward position of arguing that it would actually be better to go outside—in their esteemed and superior adult opinion. The child protests. Their desire in the matter, which they had just been asked about and therefore had to reflect on, bring to mind, commit to, and express, has been summarily ignored and disrespected anyway—even after all that work!
Far better to just make a statement in a factual form about the current phase in the established routine:
It’s time to go outside.
Simultaneously, action should be taken, such as to get shoes and coats. “Start a movement” of going outside. Preferably, this will be at the same time every day as part of a regular rhythm and sequence (on which more below). There never arises any question of going outside. It just is so, like the sun rising (exceptions for blizzards, hurricanes, etc.).
Adults should strictly avoid asking fake preference questions, even more so as ages rise. Such can be identified by whether the adult is prepared to respect whatever the answer is. If not, the adult has no business asking what they should be stating.
Announcing lists of multi-step sequences should likewise be avoided or at least minimized. The very young child is in the present.
I know you want to go outside, but we can’t yet because first we have to change your diaper and then get dressed…[blah, blah, blah]
Instead, strive to begin the process with action and identify the steps as they are taking place.
[Getting diaper, shoes, etc.]: It’s time to go outside…Now it’s time to change your diaper…We’re taking the old one off… and putting the new one on…Now its time to put on shoes. One shoe. Another shoe! Now, we are going outside [actually going outside]
Both examples speak of a sequence of events. The distinction is that in the second, the language is used while the events are unfolding, to identify them as they do. Abstracting a sequence of events that is not taking place is a separate process that the child will naturally and easily engage in later. What supports this later development now is identifying present facts and actions as they occur.
Doing so reinforces contact between language and reality. On this, later development and complexity can be built soundly. People who become accustomed to vague links between language and reality more easily buy into every sort of scam and bad idea later in life.
That said, a simple label can introduce a larger process that is about to commence, such as, “it’s time to go outside” or “we are going to grandma and grandpa’s house.” This provides a quick orientation and begins to generate images while most speaking is focused on each step as it unfolds. “Go outside” and “grandma and grandpa’s house” are quick overview labels, like titles to a book one is about to open. They are not the whole text.
Expressed preferences and daily structure
If the child expresses a preference without having been asked, this can be acknowledged, even if the preference is not acted on. If the content of the preference is fitting, it can be granted. The blue pants instead of the grey ones can indeed be selected. However, the preference in this case comes from the child’s initiative; it has not been elicited through an unnecessary preference question.
Weightier matters, such as the basic schedule of daily milestones, should not be easily changed due to such expressions. Let us say it is time to go outside and the child indicates that they want to stay in instead (typically taking the form of some inside activity in particular). The adult determines from experience that it is important to the flow of the day to go out at this time. Doing so assures, for example, that the child can take a nap easily later. The adult also realizes from experience that keeping this schedule consistent from day to day results in more reliable sleeping times. These are causal connections over extended time that the child is not yet able to apprehend. Their agent is positioned to do it for them.
The offered expression of preference should be acknowledged, but not overemphasized or dwelled on. The expression is a fact. It is real. It is not all-determining.
Insert a natural pause. In a subtle sense, they are staying inside then, if only for another moment. Then, ideally from a different position in the room and without saying “but,” add as a new thought:
It’s time to get shoes on [Moving toward coats and shoes to go outside.]
Both acknowledging the preference and noting the current phase of the daily schedule are identifications rather than judgments. In contrast to this is a retort such as:
You want to play inside, but it’s time to go outside now [perhaps spoken with a conflict-oriented attitude]
This is likely to have a quite different effect. Making these two facts into one statement and placing “but” between them carries an implication of superiority: “my determination and enforcement of the schedule stands above your mere preference.”
The suggested alternative is to identify two separate facts: 1) the child expressed that they wanted to stay in and 2) this is when we go outside and we are doing so. These are two distinct real things each allowed their own space.
The child is more likely to come around and sooner enjoy going outside if these facts are given separate recognition and suitable weight. In contrast, if their preference has been ignored or judged unimportant next to the schedule through the juxtaposition of a “but” (possibly with some attitude thrown in), it is likely to take them longer to move on.
If this whole sequence was preceded by a fake question asking if they wanted to go outside, to which they said “no,” yet the adult nevertheless insisted, having never intended to respect a no answer to begin with—well, that is just a by-invitation slow-motion train wreck.
What ties the foregoing observations together is respect for facts and reality, both of “interior” experience, preference, and meaning and “exterior” facts, actions, and communications. Assumed in the background to this discussion is the healthy authority to establish and implement a suitable daily structure, which we discuss next.
Adaptive structure, benevolent authority, and rising ages
The competent adults should establish appropriate boundaries, environments, rhythms, and rules on behalf of children who cannot yet do so themselves. These structures should be brought into practice in a consistent and comprehensible way and adapted as needed with new experience and new age ranges.
For very young children, these structures and rhythms should be treated nearly as given realities, not merely the current preferences and whims of the adults. The structure is something that has been created and exists next to both the parent and the child. It is not the current “will” of the child versus the current “will” of the parent. It is not the parent’s structure versus the child. It is the structure that has been created and exists to aid the functioning of the parent-child system. It helps both have good days. Structure should be created and then adapted as needed to assure that it continues to fit and serve. It can then function as a consistent, objective guide and signpost for all involved.
What is behind the modern tendencies in speaking with very young children in the ways described in the previous sections? Why speak in opinions rather than describe facts? Why invite children to make decisions that are naturally better made by adults? Why “ask” fake questions to which “no” is not to be taken for an answer? Finally, what overarching concept explains both the root of these non-optimal practices and the commonalities of the practices suggested to replace them?
Making decisions for children about food and clothing, setting and sticking to a regular schedule for the day, and even making undiluted factual statements rather than merely stating opinions, each entails the exercise and embodiment of benevolent authority. The parent or caregiver is exercising authority in an agency relationship, acting on behalf of the child, substituting the (presumably) better judgment of the adult for the poorly or undeveloped judgment of the child.
Authority, however, has in modern times become heavily associated with abusive authority. In this view, the “system” serves itself and certain parties, sometimes at the expense of those in it. The enforcers of the system are exercising non-benevolent authority in forcing it upon others whom it does not necessarily serve.
There are profound senses in which this is indeed actually taking place, and it is particularly egregious with respect to children at older ages and teenagers. The modern compulsory “education” system was conceived and launched explicitly as a way to produce uniform (and ultimately uniformed), obedient citizens to serve in and support the Kaiser’s army. This approach then spread around the world as states began to impose themselves into the domain of childhood learning and training.
This “one-size-fits-all” approach (more accurately, “all must be compressed to fit one size”) supersedes and suppresses self-direction and the discovery and pursuit of unique life narratives. It is no wonder that young adults struggle with what to do with their lives when they have just finished up to two decades of intensive training in ignoring and sublimating what they want to do with their lives in the face of persistent demands and requirements imposed on them from the outside. Subjecting human children to a constant diet of rote recitation of standardized content and moving to the sounding of bells—the native domains of AI-driven robots and domesticated herd animals, respectively—undermines and suppresses the curiosity and involvement that naturally drives children to want to learn new knowledge and perfect new skills under their own motive direction and on their own timing. Many old-fashioned approaches to “discipline” have likewise often functioned to serve the interests of parties other than children themselves.
It may be argued that school-bell ringing also creates a daily structure, after all. However, the difference is that such a structure cannot be adapted when it is not working for individuals. In a parent/child and other smaller-scale context, the schedule exists as a fairly consistent milestone marker, but one subject to adjustment and refinement to make it work better for those involved. This does not translate well to a mass scale at which one can too easily end up with a daily schedule that works poorly for almost everyone!
The “conservative” (in the negative sense) and bureaucratic conceptions of authority and structure have offered some useful ordering mixed with unhealthy and unsupportive elements. The “liberal” backlash has tended toward a mistrust and rejection of authority, including legitimate and helpful natural authority.
However, wholesale rejection of natural authority results in the likewise unhealthy desire to attempt to treat children as if they are quasi-“equal” miniature adults. One mark of this is the tendency to offload choices onto small children by asking preference questions that do not match their developmental range. This enables the adult to avoid feeling that they are exercising authority, something they have come to view as inherently negative, or at least unpleasant, and probably patriarchal.
Age-appropriateness for all ages
A third way is needed and its outlines are clear. It consists of defining and practicing healthy natural authority. In this approach, parents and caregivers act on behalf of children (and themselves) to make decisions and develop, adapt, and implement appropriate daily schedules.
It should be emphasized that such structure also has to work for the adults. This is in the same sense that oxygen masks on depressurized planes are to be placed first on oneself before helping others. As benevolent agent and representative of the child, the parent or caregiver strives to provide those decisions and structures that are actually appropriate and helpful. The structure is an aid to the parent-child system, not a means of showing a dominant power position. The latter is indeed what unhealthy authority looks like.
As children age, agents must hand over the “reigns” of benevolent agency to the ones who had been represented, step-by-step, as the requisite interests and capabilities are demonstrated. If the agency authority has been benevolent and actually helpful, the self-control and responsibility the growing person gradually acquires may also take up some of that flavor.
The failure of society, including both schools and parents, to proceed with this handing-over process in a sufficiently timely and age-suitable way seems to contribute to particularly unhealthy dynamics among those in their teens. In some ways they are treated too much like premature adults, while in others they are treated too much like overgrown toddlers. Finally, the “nanny state” likewise treats adults themselves as overgrown toddlers, bribing and indoctrinating them into becoming and remaining sickly dependent fans and worshipers of the parental state. Thus, children are treated too much like premature adults, adults are treated too much like overgrown toddlers, and those poor souls, “teenagers,” are treated with a worst-case combination of both.
A different approach is urgently needed: treat each age of person in a way appropriate to the phases of development they are actually in (plural “phases” because there are different “lines” of development, each of which proceeds at different paces person by person). Appropriate contexts for the exercise of healthy natural authority and benevolent representation must be identified and practiced with respect for evolving individual development. This applies starting at the beginning of life and continues from there.