27

Can anyone explain to me the reason why parents tend to refer to themselves in the third person, when talking to their young children?

E.g.:

"Hold Daddy's hand while we cross the road"

as opposed to

"Hold my hand while we cross the road"

Is there any real benefit in this?

  • 4
    because Elmo does – David LeBauer Apr 17 '12 at 9:26
  • I absolutely agree it's out of habit. Children older than a year or 18 months can understand the use of "you" and "me". They may not be able to do it themselves, but they understand when people use the first person. – Lettie Apr 30 '14 at 21:49
  • 1
    There are some very good responses below that are worthy of consideration. My contrarian opinion, for which I have no backing (hence not an answer), is that adults forget that young doesn't mean stupid, so they talk down to the kids instead of with them. – pojo-guy Feb 13 '18 at 17:27
  • Great question. I've done this for the last 2 years with my son but have to work very hard to not do it any more - it's a very hard habit to break out of. Agree with @pojo-guy - kids are not stupid. – John Hunt Feb 14 '18 at 9:48
36

It's all about language acquisition. The concept of pronouns is a little advanced for a 9-month-old who is only vaguely grasping the concept that everything has a name to begin with. When I refer to myself as "Mommy" to my daughter, it reinforces to her 1) who I am and 2) that I have a name just like everything else. While its initial use is for language development and acquisition, it does sort of eventually become a habit--especially if you have children born back-to-back. My son is pretty advanced verbally and, at age 4, certainly has mastered pronouns, but now my daughter is learning to talk so my husband and I never really got out of the habit of referring to ourselves in the third person.

Clearly there are parents out there who don't refer to themselves in the third-person and their child eventually sort out the difference between common nouns and pronouns, so I don't know if there's any evidence to suggest that it advances your baby's language development any faster, but I think many parents do it naturally without even really thinking about it.

  • 5
    Interestingly, my kids ended up using "daddy" and "mommy" as pronouns for a while, to refer to any man or woman. – Karl Bielefeldt Apr 13 '12 at 3:28
  • 1
    Yeah, mine did too :-D – Meg Coates Apr 13 '12 at 5:08
19

Because "you" doesn't uniquely identify me.

Parents want to teach their kids "dada" and "mama" and other subjects. Using "my" doesn't help with that. Similarly, parents will also say "Sasha hold mummy's hand" (Sasha being the baby) - this is to emphasize to the baby that her name is Sasha. If instead of using that language, I say "You hold my hand" - she might begin referring to herself as "You wants wa-wa!" "You wants my!"

Nouns are a lot less confusing than pronouns. However, once the child is able to understand nouns, parents should/do gradually move onto using more pronouns....

8

It is all about language acquisition and it's something you learn from watching other parents with their kids...and it becomes intuitive. Eventually the switch is made to using pronouns with them-but that can take time and it can become a habit that creeps up even after they've out grown the not-understanding-pronouns stage.

Developmentally, they don't understand all pronouns:
http://www.education.com/reference/article/development-pronouns-children/

In the following article, in the grammar section it talks about children using pronouns
http://www.livestrong.com/article/221210-language-development-in-children-from-zero-to-three/

one can assume that they understand them before that, but it's different for each child as to when the understanding begins... thus the gradual shift to pronouns by parents.

6

I remember a time of great confusion in my son about who exactly was "you" and who was "me". It's tricky -- the meanings of those words change depending on who is talking! It takes a while to catch on to that subtlety.

2

I'd say it comes down to personal experience with their children and how they have observed them reacting to certain words. It's possible they just get better results when they say Mommy or Daddy in reference to themselves. In the end everyone learns how to dismiss those patterns so it's not a detrimental practice. At least not in my opinion.

Personally I never did the whole baby talk thing. I spoke as I normally do and it never seemed to confuse them. You'd be surprised how well they understand "Me" and "I" when you put your hand on your chest when referencing yourself. And "you" when you touch their shoulder. I feel by avoiding baby talk my girls speak more clearly and their vocabulary is always impressive. Not all children are the same though so where one method works for me, it may completely fail for others. And when it does, defaulting to the simple method may just be a common ground parents resort to because after all, they already have a huge mountain of things they need to do besides a complex grammar lesson every time they need someone to hold their hand.

2

Children start with a very limited vocabulary: exactly 0 words. From there they learn new words to add.

They learn words faster if they are used more often. Additionally, "Mommy", "Daddy", "[child's name]" are words that are highly important.

3 words: Mommy, Daddy, [child's name]

More than 3 words: I, me, mine, myself, my, you, your, yours, yourself, he, his, himself, she, her, herself, they, theirs, themselves.

The example by the OP is about crossing the road. This is a situation where it's important the child understands what is said, so parents tend to use words they know the child understands.

Occasionally, while the child grows up and learns, parents can be a little slow in adjusting their language appropriately. At the start the child will not understand the parent unless simplified language is used, which is a strong incentive to use simplified language - the incentive to use standard language as the child grows up is far weaker.


P.S: The truth is not that simple, because not all words are equal. Nouns that refer to whole "things" (e.g. "Daddy", "hand", "road") are easy to teach and learn - you can point at them and say the correct word. Verbs are less easy, pronouns and abstract nouns (e.g. Acquisition) are hard.

0

It's not even a conscious thing, at least not for me. It always irritated me when people did it before I had kids. Now that I'm a parent of three kids, I find myself doing it. Not really sure why. Maybe it has to do with emphasis of authority, as in "I'm not just some random person, I'm DADDY and you need to respect that." Maybe, it's a dissassociative thing where you are distancing your self from an unpleasant decision. "Daddy already told you, no ice cream for breakfast."

-3

In my opinion, theories about language acquisition have developed to justify and/or explain what is inherently a cultural phenomenon. People choose not to refer to themselves in the first person when speaking to their children because they perceive of parenting as playing a role or carrying out a function. Therefore, they are not "me" but "daddy" or "mummy". "Me" is perceived to be incompatible with the sort of altruistic behaviour expected of parents - and many parents, esp in the contemporary UK, feel parenting should require a significant shift in their identity. In my opinion, using language like this actually reinforces a distance between one's self and one's identity as a parent - as well as needlessly reinforcing parent/child role paradigm, rather than just focusing on sharing human love with your child.

Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

  • 3
    You speak of "people" - are you a parent and doing it for this reason? Or is this trying to explain why you think other people do this? – Erik Jan 25 '17 at 13:16
  • 2
    A lot of opinion is tolerated on this site, far more than on most other SE sites. But making authoritative statements should be backed up by studies. I understand this might seem a random request considering the other answers. To address that, one needs to consider the age of this question. :) – anongoodnurse Jan 25 '17 at 23:15

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