What you say matters

Children can be very literal thinkers, so it’s important to use your words wisely.

Use your words to help young children understand what you mean.
Use your words to help young children understand what you mean.

Young children are developing their language skills. They are learning new words, asking questions to find out more information and exploring the world around them by watching other children and adults. It is important during this time that parents and caregivers use their words wisely. When children are just learning to use language, they can be very concrete thinkers – meaning they take what you say very literally.

It can be hard for adults to remember what they say and how they say it really matters to young children. Statements that seem very clear to adults such as “be quiet” can have many different meanings to a young child. Does be quiet mean stop talking, talk softer, no whispering or no noise at all? You can see that “be quiet” might mean one thing to an adult and several other things to a young child.

To keep the confusion down, you can use your words to help young children understand what you mean. Michigan State University Extension recommends the following:

  • Make sure your words are clear and your child knows what they mean. Use specific words that describe what you are talking about.
  • Talk about the meaning of words with your child.
  • Give clear directions. Make sure your child knows what they should be doing by using describing words.
  • Keep directions short. Giving a long list of things young children need to do can be hard because they may not remember anything but the last item. Give directions in short, easy to understand sentences – even if you have to break them down into smaller items.
  • Ask your child if they understand and have them tell you what they heard. Having your child repeat back what they just heard can help eliminate miscommunication and confusion from both adult and child. You can be sure they know what to do when they put things in their own words.

Using your words to help paint the picture you want your child to see can be done with a little thought and planning. For more ideas about activities and articles on child development, academic success, parenting and life skill development, please visit the MSU Extension website.

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