I’m not sure what happened, but I’m pretty convinced that all the authors got together and decided that in order for readers to understand a kid under five was, in fact, a child, they needed to talk like actual babies. I don’t know why. I wasn’t invited to this big party. But I can’t take it anymore and feel it’s time to correct some misconceptions. Please know that the following advice comes from a place of love, but as a parent I cannot express to authors enough that children are not stupid, your conversations are not ‘going over their heads’, and they do not, I repeat, they do not talk like babies past the age of two. Even at that age, they’re doing it because it’s cute and they know they have you (and every adult in the room) wrapped around their little fingers. The end.
Why is this such a hot button issue for me? It’s simple. I have kids. And kids don’t talk like that. You’re making them sound stupid. Kids are not stupid. No kid I have ever worked with or around is stupid. Authors that write children like that are either actively ignoring advice from their publisher, friends, family, etc. or they cannot be bothered enough to Google language milestones in toddlers. Either way, it’s rude. You’re being rude. Maybe your audience mainly consists of twenty-somethings with no children and so they don’t know any better and don’t care to know, but even if that’s true (which it’s probably not), I guarantee you that you’ve offended a parent somewhere with your horrendous take on child development.
Do kids talk about a bunch of stuff that no adult anywhere would be interested in? Absolutely. All the time. I cannot tell you how many conversations I’ve had to endure about Minecraft. But was it insightful? Yes. Was it a well-rounded take on something they were excited about? You betcha. Did I care? Nope. Not a chance, but never once have I heard my child say, “me hungwy”. Seriously. Never. In fact, they don’t even typically use me in place of I. And, frankly, I have no idea where this came from because it’s so wrong it makes my head hurt. They slur and they mumble and they whine, but they do not do that crap. So, like, cut it out.
But because I’m never one to offer a problem without a solution (that’s the worst!), I’m including a list of developmental language milestones below for reference. And, hopefully, to help the next generation of childless writers get it right if you must include children in your work.
From birth to six months, a baby will: turn their heads or eyes in the direction of sounds, smile when they see their caregiver, make cooing noises, laugh, and even babble as they near the end of that six month mark.
From seven months to one year, they: like playing peek-a-boo, listen when they’re spoken to, recognize words for their most common items (e.g. cup, book, etc.), start to respond to questions and requests, use gestures to communicate, but their babbling morphs into more recognizable sounds, and has one or two words at the end of this stage. However, most won’t be well understood.
When they’re one to two years old, they can do the thing where you ask them where their ears are and they point to the right body part, follow simple commands, and their vocab increases every single month. They also tend to overgeneralize. This means every kitty-looking creature is a cat. They also begin to use one- or two-word sentences, but there’s a big distinction between what is used in literature here and what is realistic. For example, they’ll say, “Where mommy?” or “Go bye-bye?”, but unless they have a speech impediment, they speak like the adults around them as much as possible. It’s all mimicry at this point. That’s how they learn to talk. That’s how anyone learns to talk. Unless the adults around them are using ‘baby speak’, they probably won’t be using it either.
From two to three years old, they have a word for almost everything, they ask why about a thousand and two times a day, they can understand opposites, and follow two-step directions. This is also the point where some developmental delays (e.g. autism) will begin to show themselves. They might stutter, especially if upset or overwhelmed.
At three to four years old, they can relay info about their days and this is also the point where people that aren’t around them 24/7 will begin to understand most of what they say. Before this point, it was probably just the parents who could translate what sounds like gibberish to the neighbor. They can begin to answer questions too with some sort of consistency and understanding. This is a big deal. They may have asked a ton of questions before, but they probably weren’t able to answer them. Oh, and they’ve probably begun to use pronouns correctly.
By four to five years old, they are following some more complicated directions (think three to four steps), using words that talk about chronology such as first, last, etc., and they get words that reference time like yesterday and today. They’re beginning to sound like little adults, but they may still stumble on some words and usually have trouble with the ‘r’ sound and mixing up things like the ‘th’ and ‘f’ sounds.
As you can see from this very short guide, the individual milestones are a lot more nuanced than most people realize. It’s easier to make them seem like cute, tiny idiots, but they are far from it, and I’m tired of opening up books and seeing this nonsense. Just cut it out and do better.