The many lessons in a one-sided conversation

April 25, 2018

One day I was visiting with a younger mother who was worried about her little boy. He wasn’t talking much yet, and she thought he might have some developmental delays.

Most mothers worry that their child is behind, but most of those worries fade with time. One of my children was 18 months old before he walked on his own—but like most children, he did walk eventually.

Most children are toilet-trained and no longer have a binky by the time they head off to kindergarten—but sometimes we wonder! I briefly entertained thoughts of jealousy that this mother doesn’t have to listen to her child talk incessantly quite yet—but eventually she will!

Nearly every child goes through a stage of asking, “Why?” a few million times a day. I finally wised up and turned it around. I said, “Why do you think?” And it did make the child think! For a few seconds, there was silence. At least until they thought of another question.

This mother, however, was concerned about her child’s lack of speech, which is an issue I never had in our house. I am no scientist, but I am a mother, and sometimes that is even better. I explained to her what I do with our children. I talk to them. All day long. Ok, so maybe not all day long, but a lot. The conversation is generally one-sided, and might go something like this:

I am making you a peanut butter sandwich. I am getting the bread out and cutting a slice. There. Isn’t that a nice, big slice of bread? Yes, it is! So now I get the knife, and spread the peanut butter on one slice. You like peanut butter, don’t you? Yes, you do, and I do, too! Ok, now for the jelly. This is grape jelly. Do you remember how we made grape jelly last summer? It’s sure good stuff, isn’t it? Wow, that looks like a great sandwich! Are you ready for your lunch? Yes? Me, too. And would you like a banana with that? I would, too.

And so forth for a lot of the day. I start when they are just tiny, and I don’t use baby talk. I speak in a normal voice all of the time. My child might not answer, but I talk anyway. They can listen to words on an iPad or television, but it’s not the same.


They aren’t seeing the facial expressions or how to form the words with the mouth. They aren’t learning how to carry on a conversation. When mom talks to them, they love the attention, and it really doesn’t take any more time out of your day.

If one of my children has a hard time saying certain words, I will repeat it back to them, “Can you say book? Book? Yes, this is a book. Good job!”

They probably won’t say it back right away, but it’s a start. They are seeing and hearing how to say it. Later on, they might try, and I praise them for every effort, whether it’s correct or not. Eventually they will learn.

In the meantime, we praise and encourage. Here again, we don’t spank a toddler when he is learning to walk, but we sure have fun giving lots of encouragement. Do the same here. Give your child something to imitate, which means to talk to them and encourage them to talk to you.

It’s common to think that screen time helps a child’s intellect. I am not sure I believe it. If they are in a very drab environment, then maybe, but I believe watching and interacting with real people is the better education.

It’s also a great time to teach certain topics. "Would you like to wear the red shirt or the blue shirt today? The red one? Can you say red? Good! Can you find the red block? Right! That’s red! Good job!” And just that easily, I am getting them ready for school.

We also used sign language with our youngest two, which gave them a way to communicate with us before they were capable of talking. It didn’t seem to delay their speech at all, but I also talked out loud as I was signing. It sure made life easier when my ten-month-old could tell me she wanted more to eat, or milk, or down. Having them sign “please” is cute, too.

But when my baby was fussy and slapping her cheeks, it took me a minute to realize that she was saying she wanted to go to bed. She was all ready, so I took her to her room, kissed and cuddled her, and then put her in bed. She smiled, rolled over, and went to sleep.

Every time I would change their diapers, I would say, “When you are old enough you are going to go potty in the toilet and you won’t wear diapers anymore. You will wear big girl panties, and that will be so nice!” I don’t know if it helped, but it sure didn’t hurt.

So talk to your child. Talk in the car. Talk while you shop. Tell them what you are doing. Tell them they are very smart. Tell them about the weather, the car, whatever you can think of. Tell them you love them.

Donna Howard is a mother of ten children—yes, ten—a grandmother of nine, and has served as a foster parent. She is completing a Master’s degree in composition. She teaches elementary music methods to education majors and owns her own band instrument repair business.

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