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Ask Debbie: What to do when children won't speak their age

Dear Debbie,

My four-year-old daughter has a wonderful vocabulary and a beautiful little voice. The problem is that I rarely hear it. Clara is usually yelling or speaking babytalk, not to mention the whining. It really is driving me nuts, so much so that now I am whining too.

Hhhelp mmeee Mom

Dear Hhhelp,

Looks to me like you have a little communication problem going on here. We can combat this problem on two fronts. Both of which will take some hard work on your part. When children are just learning to speak they mimic whatever they hear. This repetition is a good thing and helps the child make sense of her world. What often happens adults use sing-song intonation when speaking to a child. For example, you are out for a walk with your baby and you see the birds in the sky. "Look" you say to your child. "Look, a birdie is flying in the sky." Over time you repeat this on your many walks and now any flying animal in the air has become a birdie. Taking walks with your children and showing them the world is wonderful but using babytalk (as delightful as it is to parents) can cause problems later on. Better is to use proper language and plenty of it. "Look at the beautiful red bird in the sky. The bird is resting on the tree. Listen you can hear the bird singing." We forget that the child is growing older and we perpetuate the language because it is cute. Sometimes it is our unconscious attempt to keep the child a baby that gives license to the babytalk. Then when we grow tired of it, it is too late. The words have been ingrained in our child's vocabulary. Here's what I suggest: When you are talking to your child use your best language and sentence structure. Praise your daughter when she uses her "big girl words." Your child will come up with her own cute words that become part and parcel of her language. Those are special and will probably become part of your family's memories. For instance my 23-year-old cousin said "hangaburgers" for hamburgers and, much to his chagrin, the family still goes out to dinner for hangaburgers and fries.

As far as the whining and yelling, ignore it and ask your daughter to repeat what she said in her "big girl" voice. When she uses her big girl voice you need to respond to what she is saying or asking in a timely fashion so that she sees that her new voice is respected and appreciated. Your daughter may whine because she knows her request is going to be declined by you. Here you need all your patience and determination. After Clara's first request for candy before dinner, you need to calmly answer that there is no candy before dinner. Ok here comes the whining "Mommm pleassse just one little bit." Be calm now and reply, "Clara, When you whine I can not understand you. It sounds like you are asking for candy. There will be no candy before dinner."

Trust me you will probably have to repeat yourself several times, but it will be worth it in the long run. Clara will learn that you are sticking to your decision and that the whining will not work. Once Clara stops whining she may expect the candy as a reward. This is your chance to thank her for using her big girl voice and then repeat that there will be no candy before dinner; however, she can choose one piece for an after dinner treat. As the parent we do have to reward the non-whining voice in some manner. After all one piece of candy is not the end of the world.

Remember each time your child whines, take a deep breath and repeat that you can not understand what she is saying and that you will answer her when she uses her big girl voice. I promise that over time this will work. Just stick to it. Who knows? That beautiful little voice may turn out to belong to the next American Idol!

Be well,


Do you have a question for Debbie? Email your inquiries to or send your inquiry to: Debbie Cohen, Springfield JCC, 1160 Dickinson Street, Springfield, MA 01108.