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My niece is a year and a half old. I was reading a book on animals with her recently and helping her learn the names of the animals in it. I noticed that she identified the picture of a lion as a "kitty". Is it pedagogically better at this point to specifically teach her that it is a lion and not a cat (e.g. a biological "lie-to-children"), or is it better to reinforce that she is technically correct and then later teach her that a lion is a specific kind of very large cat?

I am conflicted as to what the educational best practice would be. I am very well aware that a lion is taxonomically considered to be a kind of cat, but this is not the common street definition of cat, and I am also not convinced that a one and a half year old is expected to understand (or even be capable of understanding) the spectrum of general to specific definitions of words, e.g. that when one uses the word "cat" or "kitty", it typically means only a housecat, but when speaking in terms of biology, it means any animal in the Panthera or Felis genera.

Please, no Magritte pipe jokes.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; despite the entertaining question of the risk of being eaten by felines (domestic or wild) it strayed quite far off-topic and has been moved to chat ;) – Acire Dec 30 '17 at 23:17
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    Sometimes I feel like we'd all be better off if we spent less time on the internet trying to figure out how to best raise kids & just spent more time with the kids. – michael Jan 1 '18 at 6:03
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    "Yes honey, that kitty is a lion! It is a very BIG kitty!" No lie required, no conflict introduced, correct taxonomy explained. – Moby Disk Jan 1 '18 at 17:00
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    I'm with the above, with my kids they knew the differences between lion, tiger, and leopard by the age of 2, but they all started out calling them "kitty". I'd say "that's right, this one is called a lion" or whatever we happen to be looking at. A trip to the zoo to reinforce the size (difficult for children to tell relative size from a book) really helps too. – Ron Beyer Jan 1 '18 at 23:46
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    Haven't seen this below, but whatever you choose, make sure she knows that "Lion" is the common, accepted word because when she gets into learning the alphabet, you'll definitely see a big capital L next to a picture of a Lion, and you don't want her thinking "kitty". – JPhi1618 Jan 2 '18 at 19:48
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Overextension is normal

Overextension and related phenomena (including the opposite, underextension) are very common, even expected phases in language acquisition.

Some children call all four-legged animals "dogs" for a period, while others reject the idea that a chihuahua and a German Shepherd are both "dogs".

As a child, I thought that "park" meant only playground equipment. I guess my parents would ask, "Do you want to go to the park?" and I'd think of the only part that was interesting to me at that age.

Addition: (This is also what's happening in this famous clip... the girl is not clueless, but overextending!)

Your niece has a mental concept of what a kitty is, and she's doing the right thing by testing it out on new specimens, even if she has to refine her guesses later.


Directly correcting language errors is hit-or-miss, but it can't hurt

Correction of these usages by parents is not always effective.* All children have to figure out the boundaries of word meanings for themselves. This happens through trial and exposure.

But if you're concerned about ensuring she gets the right information and don't know how to explain the subtleties of animal taxonomy to a toddler... one way can be to gently prod her to think about it. Confirm part of her hypothesis, but add to it or problematize it:

— Yook, a kitty!

— Yes, look at the lion! Isn't he fierce?

The child becomes helpfully perplexed about the meaning of your comment and accommodates the new information, either now or later on when she observes that those around her don't say "kitty" when they see that animal. When you say "yes" but use a different word, she's likely to come to the right conclusion: that what she said isn't wrong but it isn't the best or most specific term.

Alternatively, there's no harm in directly correcting her. The worst that can happen is that she might ignore or contradict you (for now), and hey, if she's got some metalinguistic gifts she might actually listen and apply what you tell her directly.

— Yook, a kitty!

— That's not a kitty, honey — kitties live in our houses. It's a lion. Isn't he fierce?

To put it shortly, don't fret over it. Correct her directly or indirectly, or just let it slide. She will work it out, along with her other inevitable grammar mistakes, as she grows up.


* Indeed, children rarely learn from direct correction. Some types of errors, such as the one in the following exchange between a linguist and his son, are even harder to address through explicit instruction:

Child: Want other one spoon, Daddy.
Father: You mean, you want the other spoon.
Child: Yes, I want other one spoon, please, Daddy.
Father: Can you say "the other spoon"?
Child: Other... one... spoon.
Father: Say "other".
Child: Other.
Father: "Spoon."
Child: Spoon.
Father: "Other... spoon."
Child: Other... spoon. Now give me other one spoon?
(Braine, 1971)

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    Hurray for linguists :) I think I have the same textbook. – MAA Dec 31 '17 at 12:04
  • @MAA Neat. In that case feel free to correct my transcription - I'm quoting from a memory of 6 or 7 years ago since my book ended up with a relative... – Luke Sawczak Dec 31 '17 at 13:22
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    Hmmm the “other one spoon” anecdote is surprisingly similar to some IT help desk calls I’ve fielded. Maybe we never grow out of some cognitive patterns. – Todd Wilcox Jan 1 '18 at 16:17
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    I just want to say, I found this answer fantastically interesting. Overextension and underextension are not terms I'd heard before but I immediately understood the meaning. The way we learn from very young has always interested me but I'd never thought to learn more about it. I think I now will :) – Clonkex Jan 3 '18 at 5:42
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    On those out-takes shows (e.g. "It will be alright on the night") there is one of a child being asked to say "Miami", but she keeps saying "Your ami". Also I remember my son went through a phase in which all bread was "toast", including raw toast. – Paul Johnson Oct 26 '18 at 21:34
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At most ages your best bet is to agree that it is a kitty, as they are the same - but stress that it is a big kitty; the lion kind of kitty. It is a much more positive learning experience to be able to say "Yes" with some clarifications, rather than "No." 18 months is a bit on the young side of understanding, but if she can see that it is a kitty then she will probably be able to see the differences.

If you have a book with a cat and a lion in it you can help them see the differences. You can also do the "meeow" and "ROOAAARRR" noises to help them understand.

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    Thanks, I think you are getting at the heart of my question - not whether or not we should eventually cover the difference between a housecat and a lion, but whether it is appropriate to tell her that her identification is wrong. – Robert Columbia Dec 30 '17 at 13:30
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    I agree with this answer wholeheartedly. Regardless of "street use", the child is 100% correct. Why stifle her education, or confuse her, for the sake of the common idea? I'd like to stress the point OP made about pedagogue; a lion is a cat, "kitty" is, by dictionary definition, a pet name for a cat. There's no changing these facts, and to waffle on clear definitions is pedantic. I'm reminded of the dilemma of getting a wrong mark in math because the expected answer is 1+1+1=3, not 2+1=3, even though they reach the same conclusion. – NOP Dec 30 '17 at 14:17
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    +1 for finding the dual positive approach! It is important they know lions aren't cute itty bitty creatures, but they are big cats. – Will Crawford Dec 31 '17 at 2:33
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    +100 if I could. Whenever I teach anything (math, programming, physics, juggling, skateboarding, ...), I always try to find some truth in an answer so that I say "Yes + clarifications" instead of a big frustrating "No". Students make much more progress this way. – Eric Duminil Dec 31 '17 at 11:55
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    @RobertColumbia - An additional point that this answer didn't make is that she will figure out the difference for herself within a year or two. If she doesn't make the clarification by the time she's 3 or so, she'll be able to process the correction more easily when you make it. When my children were that age, all cats were kitties. By the time they entered elementary (primary) school, they were able to differentiate among several different kinds of cats and could even correct me if I misidentified some of the large cats ("that's a Siberian tiger, dad!"). – Doug R. Jan 3 '18 at 16:39
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Consider, for a moment, that what she is pointing to is not actually a lion, but a flat sheet of processed tree pulp painted with thousands of little dots in the image of a lion. Her decision to call it a "kitty" comes from her brain trying to find the best way to communicate with you that she can, in the way she thinks you want to communicate.

As a simple solution, I'd go along with what Luke Sawczak recommended: acknowledge that it is kitty-ish, and then state what it is: "yeah, that's a lion! Big kitty." You might actually be surprised at how many people would consider a lion to be a big kitty:

Big Kitty! Big kitty 2

The key is that "Yeah, that's a lion! Big kitty!" is phrased in a positive sense. It doesn't challenge their claim that its a kitty. In fact, if you're uncomfortable even saying that it's a kitty, you could get away with "That's a lion!" on its own. What I believe you should try to avoid is the phrasing "No, that's not a kitty," or any other phrasing which tells them that they got it wrong. (this may also apply, for example, if they call a cow a "kitty." You simply have to say "That's a cow," and choose not to acknowledge its membership in the kitty family)

If you want to think it though, yourself, consider how a child must accommodate your new information. If you say "this is a lion," that does not conflict with them saying "That's a kitty." It's not until you add the idea that "a lion is not a kitty" that there is any conflict.

If a child is permitted to make any associations they please, and are simply given new associations, it will almost certainly lead them towards wanting to make more associations. I've never seen it fail in my experience. As a general rule, we tend to want this behavior in children (your mileage may vary). Thus, it is generally preferable to avoid giving them negative associations ("this is not a kitty").

From personal experience, my 2 year old called the lions and tigers at the zoo "kitties" from a very young age. All I ever did was tell her "Those are lions!" and "Those are tigers!" By 2, she now properly identifies lions and tigers without hesitation.

This, of course, is a general statement, not an overarching one. There are obviously times where we want children to be careful when making associations. We don't want our children shouting "fire!" at anything orange and yellowish, because doing so has social implications. In such cases, negative associations are desirable to nip that behavior in the bud. All practical situations are somewhere in-between, but I would argue that misidentifying an animal in a book is not one which has enough social costs to warrant anything negative. Save it for where it counts.

Of course, I may be wrong. Each child is different. Consider asking her parents how they would like you to treat such situations. A million internet kibitzers are probably worth less than simply asking the parent how they would like such linguistic games to be played.

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    Her parents have more or less the same opinion as me - that "correcting" her is not the right move as long as what she says is understandable and reasonable, and that greater precision in diction will come later. – Robert Columbia Jan 1 '18 at 1:24
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You're over thinking this.

If the picture shows a dog are you going to debate if it is a greyhound, a dachshund, or a german sheperd?

Just say, "Yes! That is a kind of cat."

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    What if my daughter sees a cow and declares it is a dog? (Which did once happen, when she was a toddler. Furry + four legs = dog, in her limited experience.) – Acire Dec 30 '17 at 23:22
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    @Erica - I'd say "Hmmm..., I think that is supposed to be a cow." – MaxW Dec 30 '17 at 23:26
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    I'm curious what the utility is in correcting in one case (dog/cow) and not another (cat/lion). I see where you're coming from but would like a more in-depth perspective on how this is going to either benefit or harm a child's vocabulary development -- which may indeed be "overthinking" but is part of what Parenting.SE exists for. – Acire Dec 30 '17 at 23:28
  • But I did correct the cat identification... I added a kind of cat. So a gentle correction, but a correction none the less. With such a book it opens all sorts of possibilities to have conversations not just read. So if the family has a house cat named Sam then you could talk about how a lion is different than Sam - sound, size, etc. – MaxW Dec 30 '17 at 23:38
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    I recommend you edit your question to clarify. Right now it includes *just* say, which implies no discussion; also opening the possibility to discuss different kinds of cats seems to contradict your second sentence. – Acire Dec 31 '17 at 0:27
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Many kids barely say a few words at the age one and half so it's nice she's able to identify stuff and put them in words. At her age, she doesn't need to know biological families and subspecies. A lion's pic looks different from a cat's pic, that's all she needs to know. So I would correct her. And then show her a picture of a household cat/kitty and let her figure out the differences between them.

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Depth of Knowledge also referred to as D.O.K.,  is the complexity or depth of understanding required to answer or explain an assessment related item or a classroom activity. The concept of depth of knowledge was developed through research by Norman L. Webb in the late 1990’s. 

A toddler can not reach to that depth of biological knowledge. When you explain of being a lion a specific kind of very large cat, toddler won't be able to grasp. When your toddler tell this to his friends, they won't understand as knowledge is too abstract in their respective depth of understanding.

This will arise a chain question of how lion is a big kitty, then what are other categories, then how such categories defined etc. All the above knowledge may not understand by toddler at this level. Even if you make him understand anyhow, it has very less chance that toddler will be able to explain what he knows.

For now you can simply say that lion is a lion, not kitty. This will make toddler more focused and can explain what he knows. But in his age group, he might not be able to explain why a lion is a big kitty when everyone is his age group knows nothing about biological sciences.

It happened with me when I was a little boy. I saw an explanation of fishes having an air bladder. When I told this about my friend, they were laughing. They asked how an air bladder can exist in fishes when they are always in water. I wasn't able to explain and got myself in embarrassing situation. I don't want any other boy become like me.

  • Would you be kind enough to provide a link to a source? Thanks! – anongoodnurse Jan 1 '18 at 5:04
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    It's interesting that you feel that you wouldn't want someone else to be in the situation of knowing information that they can't (yet) explain. I actually have positive memories about several occasions when I knew something that contradicted intuition or group wisdom, but couldn't explain how. For instance, some of my classmates claimed that a hundred times a hundred was a thousand. I was sure it wasn't, but couldn't explain. Later, when I was in a park with a teenage girl who was a friend of my grandmother's, I brought this up. She said, "You're right, it's ten thousand." That felt wonderful! – Alan Jan 1 '18 at 14:47
  • Yes, my second last paragraph explains your concern. In first situation, your friends have low depth of knowledge while in second situation, both you and your friend have same level of understanding. It's kind of tricky to understand the situation. – Vivek Ji Jan 2 '18 at 16:45
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I'd tell her it's a lion, and that it's "like a cat" or (better) "a sort of cat".

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    A few downvotes with no explanation for the new user so... People want to see an explanation of why you're saying that and answers should be longer than one sentence. Also, if you're just saying what someone else has already said, but don't have a different reason, just upvote their answer. You're not explaining why to call it a lion so other answers that do explain are getting more positive attention. – JPhi1618 Jan 2 '18 at 19:53

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