Teaching children appropriate language: Part 1

What is appropriate language for children?

A little boy sitting on a man's lap.

Language is a combination of words, gestures and social skills that work together as a system to help us communicate with others. Language is the way that we express our thoughts, feelings and connect with others. Being able to communicate with others effectively is necessary for academic and life success. Appropriate language promotes the development of children’s social and emotional competencies, social awareness, self-regulation, relationship skills, self-management and self-awareness.

Teaching your child about appropriate speech and language for different environments, individuals and situations.

Appropriate language varies based on ages and stages

Identifying age appropriate language for your child is vital in teaching them how to be a respectful peer, student and family member. Remember to consider your child’s age and their development stage (what they are ready to be learning). Although there are some age-appropriate milestones of speaking, knowing your child’s norms will help you determine realistic goals and expectations for language.

Appropriate language changes in different contexts

Part of teaching appropriate language for your child is learning what language is appropriate for different situations. It is important to emphasize that different environments call for different voice tones, volume and diction (the words and phrases you choose when speaking or writing like “joyful” versus “happy”). 

For example, when your child is playing on the swing set with their peers, loud voices and rowdy behavior are acceptable. It is OK to yell, run and jump when you are outside playing. However, this behavior would not be acceptable in a library. Appropriate behavior in a library includes walking, whispering and being respectful of others' space. Educating your child on the social norms, environments, culture and society is important, as they need to learn these skills in order to become socially responsible and aware.

Appropriate language depends on who you are talking to

When using language, you will change vocabulary or language depending on your audience. For example, the way you talk to peers is not the same way you are going to talk to a teacher, coach, or doctor. Teaching children appropriate vocabulary for different individuals is necessary in order to be respectful, especially to adults and other people who deserve respect. Talk about how they should greet and speak to a teacher or other adult. Should they say sir or ma’am? Should they raise their hand if they want to speak? Talk through what the rules or expectations are.

Appropriate language is dynamic

Social norms and acceptable behaviors are always changing, and appropriate language is constantly changing too. Consider your own cultural customs and norms, as well as others while teaching your child appropriate language. For example, teach your child that certain words are hurtful, harmful or derogatory towards others. Language is always changing so those words will change too. It is important to continuously educate yourself and your child on appropriate words in order to be respectful of others.

Investing time in teaching your child appropriate language is not an easy task, although an invaluable one. Considering these aspects while teaching your child appropriate language can help their development of becoming a respectful member of your family, culture and society.

For more information about appropriate language, check out these resources from Michigan State University Extension:

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