I'm asking about interacting with my 1.5 year old goddaughter.

I'll start off by saying I believe it's good for kids to make decisions and feel empowered to do so when possible. I want to give a kid as much decision making power as I can on small stuff so she knows she can express herself, even if some decisions she's not allowed to make on her own. She's already independent and self-confident, but it's a trait I want to further encourage.

As such I do what I do with slightly older children, and try to offer decisions often. For example while babysitting her last night in a mall I would offer her the choice of where she wanted to go in the mall by suggesting she could point where she wanted to go (she loves riding on my shoulders so she can't always just walk that way on her own). I also gave her choices like to play or go eat. I try to phrase them in ways shes capable of understands and make it clear how she can express her answer (like saying one option is eat because that's one of the words she can say and uses to express hunger so I know she will know how to express that choice, or suggesting she points since she does that all the time to express desires).

Sometimes I get very clear answers and that's great when it happens!

Other times I don't get a clear answer from her. That's not always wrong, she may not be up to parsing some of the questions I'm asking yet and sometimes she may not have a strong opinion either way. However, even when I think she is capable of understanding the question and likely would want to make a choice she doesn't always respond.

I think part of my problem is that I try to talk to her always when were together, to help her develop her language skills and generally allow more interaction with her, especially when were doing something otherwise 'boring' like walking places. With me talking soo much to her though I don't know how much she is listening to me, and I suspect sometimes she just drones my words out. When I try to ask her a question I'm not always certain if she has heard and bothered to understand the question, or if she stopped listening to my constant talking to pay attention to something else. That's particularly hard to tell when she's riding on my shoulders as she is prone to do since I can't tell where she is looking or if she is paying attention.

Any tips on how I can better express decisions to her?. That could be ways to make it obvious that she's being asked a questions and may want to pay more attention, or ways to make it easier for her to understand her options and/or help her to understand how to communicate her preferences back to me?

I also sometimes feel a little odd deciding what to do when I don't get an understandable response from her when the options are just complex enough to challenge her cognitive understanding. I know there is a good chance she may not understand me, but there is also the chance she did but didn't know how to express her decision (not every question can be answered by pointing). If she did have a preference she couldn't express and then I pick the opposite decision because I couldn't understand her choice I know it would be frustrating for her, she imagine her sitting on my shoulders wondering why I bother to ask a question if I'm just going to ignoring her. I don't think there is much of a way to avoid that happening on occasion, that's just part of the frustration any kid has during that period of language development where they can understand but not always respond back, but I wonder if there is a good way of explaining "were doing x because I couldn't understand your answer" that still makes it clear she has the right to make a decision if she expresses it and I'm not intentionally ignoring her answer?


An update from a year later. My goddaughter ended up needing tubes in her ear due to fluid buildup and ear infections. The fluid build up was muffling sound making her somewhat hard of hearing, After her surgery her vocabulary improved rapidly, as did her ability/willingness to discuss things with me and respond to my comments to her.

So it's likely the extra difficulty I had with getting her to express herself, relative to other kids her age, is that she honestly couldn't hear me, or at least was hearing my voice muffled enough to make it hard for her to understand.

2 Answers 2


When my older son was about a year and a half, one of his daycare teachers shared an experience they had that day. Owen spent a good 5 minutes pacing across the front of the classroom, with a look of concentration on his face, until he finally walked up to her and said "juice." She believed that he spent that whole time pacing, trying to remember what the word was for the item he was looking for.

Alot of young children are taught sign language because their ability to understand language outpaces their ability to make the sounds themselves. At that same daycare center, both of my children were taught the signs for "milk", "all done", "thank you," "more," and a number of others (that I don't remember anymore--it has been about 15 years).

I think your instincts are correct that she is understanding quite a bit of what you are saying. And I think that talking when you are with her is a great way to introduce her to more language, so I would keep that up.

But, I also think that you are right about her tuning you out after a while. Think about sitting in front of a radio where the announcers are speaking another language. You quickly become exhausted if you try to concentrate on that, and I am sure babies feel that way alot as well.

So, in addition to the really top-notch advice that @Willow gave above, I would also suggest that you try to learn and teach her some sign language. Google "sign language for toddlers" and a ton of resources will pop up--I am linking to this one because it has a short video showing someone teaching a baby sign language, and is simply adorable (although it doesn't show the sign for milk, which looks like you are milking a cow and is my favorite). This won't help so much in terms of decision making, but will really help her feel empowered--the level of tantrums really decreased once my kids were able to "tell" me what they wanted.

And, in terms of decision making, well, now I will share with you the skill set that was absolutely THE MOST HELPFUL to me when I became a parent--dog training. Sometimes people get really offended by that, but dog training is all about making yourself understood by another sentient being who doesn't communicate in the same way as you do. Which is pretty much what is happening between adults and babies/toddlers.

I was taught to always preface a command with the dog's name--that alerts the dog that you are saying something that s/he should pay attention to. Do the same thing with your goddaughter. Before you ask her for a decision, say her name. You might also stop, take her off of your shoulders, and then ask her for her decision--this makes it clear to her that something different is happening, and will help her organize her thoughts so that she can actually make a decision.

Good luck, and have fun-I love nothing more than spending unassigned time with a small child-their ability to connect to all of their emotions--joy, misery, wonder, dislike--is a reminder of what life can be like and is a gift they give to the adults that care for them.

  • good one and thanks for the edit, too. +1
    – WRX
    May 26, 2017 at 20:54
  • I've already told my sister that working with her kids was just a matter of using the same operant conditioning you used with animals before. she didn't approve :P
    – dsollen
    May 30, 2017 at 13:32

I think your idea and your method is mostly spot on. Young children learn language by 1) hearing it used (especially when the context is clear), and 2) using it themselves.

So I think you are on the right track, but that you are attempting too much, too soon. Your idea that the child is zoning you out while you drone on is likely correct.

  1. Continue to talk and show examples to your goddaughter. ("Here is the store that sells shoes. Do you see red shoes? (Yes, or) Here are the red shoes. Do you like the red shoes or the blue shoes?" Then praise her for her choices and emphasise the lesson. (Red/blue/shoes/store and the choice she made.)
  2. Also give her other real choices. "Should we go to the toy store or visit the play area?" Then allow that choice to happen.
  3. Keep your words to the point and concrete. At 18 months concepts are still mostly out of reach. You can explain that she likes something and help her to express it but concepts like smooth or rough, soft or hard, even cold and hot are what she is just starting to understand -- and those concepts are a lot more concrete than "right and wrong", "good and bad".
  4. Keep your lessons short. Her attention span for things she really likes is 5 to 10 minutes -- and though she enjoys your company, a long lesson is counter productive.
  5. Teach and play. Teach and interact with your godddaughter for five minutes and then play for ten. Sometimes you can reintroduce the thing you are teaching, but though she is open to learning, it does get tiring. There is so much to learn! ("Do you like the slide? It's smooth! The ground at the bottom is hard, isn't it?"

I think that when she does not give you a clear answer, she is letting you know she has had enough. You can slowly expand her attention span over time. Take those five minutes of learning today and in two months you may have expanded that to seven or eight minutes. Sandwich the teaching/learning times with the same ten minutes of free play. Slow and steady wins this race.

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