The “Magic” of Baby Talk
The high-pitched, sing-song style of speech we refer to as “baby talk” appears to be a universal human response when interacting with newborns. Regardless of our relationship with the infant – mom, dad, already talkative older sibling, family friend with no prior experience with babies – we all fall into speaking “baby talk” to the newest members of our ranks. Furthermore, research shows that babies respond more readily to “baby talk” (technically termed “infant-directed speech”) than to normal speech patterns. Strong evidence exists of a complete, pre-wired language circuit between infants and their extended human family – nature’s way to ensure the kind of talk that fosters growth.
Too bad our wiring only takes us so far. And too bad the template only applies to the style of speech and not to “magic” words or phrases. Babies become children. Children learn to talk back (in all senses of that phrase). Tweens and teens, when they deign to remove ear buds and actually listen to parents at all, often seem predisposed to reject the how and what of most parental utterances. And we parents aren’t always at our most diplomatic when talking to our kids.
When Words Begin to Matter
But our children do hear us. And while babies are responding not to words but to pitch and repetition, soon parents’ specific words of praise or criticism begin profoundly to influence their children’s sense of competence. If we thought deeply about the potential of our words to shape our kids – words uttered in every imaginable emotional state, on topics ranging from the mundane to the monumental, and extending over the course of roughly 18 years – we might consider vows of silence. Since that’s not an option, it behooves us to choose our words carefully, and with the intention to bolster our kids’ internal motivation. Remember that having an open, trusting, respectful relationship with your child will positively influence all communication, even the most delicate or challenging conversations.
Beyond working to maintain such a relationship, here are some tips on how to talk with your child in a way that will enhance his or her sense of competence:
Stay clear of the following:
- Avoid negative feedback. This undermines future motivation.
“This makes no sense” or “No, that’s not the way to do it.”
“Why do you think that didn’t work so well?” or “What were you trying to accomplish?”
- Beware of “person praise”. While this sort of talk might provide initial motivation, it can lead to a sense of helplessness when your child confronts increasing levels of challenge.
“You’re so smart; of course you can pass the quiz today” or “You’re a natural at tennis, so I know you’ll make the team.”
“I really admire how long you spent practicing your serve the other day.”
- Fight the tendency to give directions that will be heard as “Do it my way”. Controlling language tends to stifle motivation.
“During your soccer game today I want to see you to take at least three shots on goal.”
“I remember that you had success scoring last game when you made lots of passes to your teammates.”
Try to incorporate more of:
- Focus on praising the process. As opposed to “person praise”, this fosters a growth mindset and motivates continued effort.
“I really appreciated the way you took a little break when you got frustrated, then went back to your math problems when you were feeling less upset. That’s a great way to keep making progress on difficult tasks.”
- Find opportunities to point out the positive. By focusing on your child’s incremental success, even when he or she falls short on the overall task, you can promote competence and catalyze motivation for future positive behavior.
“Your shot didn’t go in the hoop, but it was much closer that time and the arc was perfect” or “I really appreciated how quickly you apologized for tripping your sister. Did you notice how she stopped crying as soon as she heard you say you were sorry?”
Can There Be Too Much Praise?
You might have heard from some “experts” that too much praise can be detrimental. Yes, praise can backfire. Yet if you look closer, this often occurs not because of the quantity of praise but when parents disproportionately highlight a child’s innate talent rather than his or her efforts to develop new skills. We know that ultimately, regardless of the care we take when talking to our children, there is no magic. But by strategically tweaking the way we provide feedback, we can help our children be more resilient and motivated, and feel more genuinely competent.
These suggestions for how to provide feedback, praise and criticism are drawn from David Streight’s Breaking Into the Heart of Character, Second Edition (CSEE, 2014).