Why the little guys can’t just “use your words.”
Every parent and grandparent knows that when a toddler is having a tantrum, we’re supposed to ignore them. We aren’t supposed to give them our attention, because that’s what they crave.
But what ARE we supposed to do when a toddler in our care throws themself down on the floor and screams? What exactly are we supposed to say when one of our little munchkins hauls off and smacks another? Or when one of them just rips the Elsa doll out of her brother’s hands?
In my travels around as a retired teacher and current Nonni, I’ve seen lots of adults faced with one of these scenarios. I often hear them trying to use language as a way to control things.
“Calm down,” the adult will say. “We do not hit in this house! You may not have the Elsa doll if you’re going to behave this way!” Or the adult will try to steer the little one toward a more pro-social response.
“Honey, use your words.”
I bet you’ve heard this line more than once, and have maybe even used it yourself. “Use your words,” we tell the kids; as if those words are sitting in their pockets and all they have to do is pull them out.
Old Nonni the speech lady is here to tell you why toddlers and preschoolers can’t simply use their words.
In the first place, as I learned from a wise school counselor back in the day, children can’t process our requests when they are in the middle of a meltdown. When the emotions are raging, children can’t calmly step back, regroup and assess their feelings in order to put them into words.
Nor can adults, but that’s another article altogether.
So if your little darling is on the floor in a flood of tears, it’s best not to say a word. It does nobody any good for the adult to keep ordering the child to calm the hell down.
I once watched a friend scream at her screaming, sobbing son. “I’m ignoring you!” she shouted, “Do you hear me? I. Am. Ignoring. You!”
It didn’t work to stop the tantrum.
The best approach, at least most of the time, is to stay where the child can see and hear you but don’t interact directly. The little one needs to know that you are nearby, to provide that desperately needed sense of security and safety. But they are in no position to listen to you.
Or to “use their words” to explain themselves.
When things are calm, you can talk about better ways to react next time around. But simply telling the child to use words is not the most effective approach.
Similarly, if there is no tantrum involved, but your toddler has just resorted to their primitive state and used physical actions instead of words to get what they want, it probably won’t help to tell them to“Use your words.”
That’s because they don’t have those words. Not right then, they don’t.
At that moment, as one particular impulse goes zipping through their tender, developing brains, they do not have access to the vocabulary, syntax, grammar or articulation for the phrase, “Gee, do you mind if I use that for a minute before you get your turn?”
The production of a single oral sentence is a complex, highly structured action that includes several distinct sets of rules. In order to simply ask for a turn with the red truck, your toddler must recall the correct noun and adjective labels (“red” and “truck”). They must place those two keywords within a set structure, which could be either a command (“Give me the red truck.”) or a request (“Can I have the red truck?”) There are different rules for how to construct each. Each structure has rules about word order and articles and intonation.
Having chosen which structure to produce, the little one must then remember how to move their oral muscles and how to sequence those movements so they can make all the necessary sounds to say it out loud.
It’s no wonder, then, that little Johnny isn’t always able to ask for what he needs. Sometimes he just has to lash out and bite. It’s quicker, it gets results, and it’s something he can do effortlessly.
One quick chomp, and the red truck is in his hands.
I could demand that he “Use your words,” as I pry the red truck out of his pudgy little fingers and hand it back to his friend. But that’s not likely to result in either peace or the sharing of toys.
It will certainly not teach either child how to use language to mediate a conflict.
Instead, I find that it helps to give toddlers a model. Show them what simple phrase might work for them in a similar situation.
“Simple” is, of course, the operative word here. I don’t often say, “John, we can ask Ellie if she’d be inclined to allow us to participate?” And I don’t worry about the niceties of “please” and “thanks” in these moments, either; they are the gravy on this particular meal of oral language.
Here’s what I have found works most of the time.
I remove the fought over toy, holding it in my own hands. Putting an arm around each combatant lets them know that a) I still love them and b) I’m in charge.
Then I say something like this:
“Ellie, can I use the red truck?” or “When can I have a turn?”
Nothing about raising kids is foolproof, so of course this isn’t a guarantee. But 9 out of 10 times, the grabber will repeat my phrase to the grabbee and peace will be restored for a few minutes.
Until they both notice that they really want to play with the pink fluffy doggie.
Hopefully, though, this time at least one will remember the phrase they just practiced and we can avoid the biting part of the day.