Years ago, before I had kids, I was walking across a park with a friend when a little boy of about 4 or 5 wandered by. I looked at him and said, “Hello, how are you?”
Confused by my formality, the kid scrunched his face and quickly scampered away. I felt like a narc.
My friend laughed at my bizarre attempt to engage the toddler, noting that I clearly had no idea how to talk to children. He was right. Now that I have a child of my own, I know a little better.
But my approach hasn’t necessarily changed. I don’t use baby talk.
I don’t mean I’m ultra-sarcastic and sweary with him. But I try to speak in complete sentences, with actual words, and I never, ever use baby talk.
I should clarify: I sometimes mispronounce words the way he does, and when he was younger I’d use some of the “words” he used, just to make sure he knows what I’m talking about. I won’t deny that I’ve called his bottle a “ba-ba” on occasion; getting a two-year-old to brush his teeth and eat his dinner and stop yelling is hard enough without confusing by using fifty-cent words. For the most part, though, I use real words, and I enunciate correctly, and I explain things to him in a normal tone.
I never use a baby voice.
When I talk to my son, I don’t get all high-pitched and I don’t go all wide-eyed and rubber mouthed and I don’t make goo-goo noises. Because my son is not an asshole, and neither am I.
Using baby talk makes me feel like an idiot (and a little like my Aunt Carole, who still uses it with me and my brothers, and we’re older than John Travolta was when he made his first comeback). Worse, using baby talk makes me feel like I’m talking to an idiot, and I imagine it makes my son feel the same way.
Why would I want to treat my kid like a simpleton? What good does that do for his self-esteem, or for his language skills, or for his opinion of me? How can you take an adult seriously when every time they talk to you they’re mugging like a clown and they sound like Betty Boop? No thanks; I prefer to keep it real.
That doesn’t mean I’m discussing Edward Snowden or global warming or what Mommy and Daddy were doing in bed late last night with my toddler, but it does mean that when I’m sending him to time out or I’m explaining why I just yelled at him, I try to do it in a calm, normally-octaved voice, using actual words and looking him in the eye. This approach doesn’t always pay immediate dividends – yesterday, when I told my son he had “impeccable manners,” he laughed and said “Daddy’s CRAZY!” – but it certainly can’t hurt.
Years from now, when he correctly uses the word “impeccable” in front of his school friends and gets beat up for being a nerd, I’ll know my hard work has paid off.