Why do parents refer to themselves in 3rd person when talking to their young children?
September 21, 2011 6:47 PM   Subscribe

Why do parents refer to themselves in 3rd person when talking to their young children?

Why do parents call themselves 'Mummy' or 'Daddy' instead of using words like I, me, mine etc?

Are young children so self-centred that they do not understand that the concept of 'me' applies to other people too, or are parents going through some sort of identity crisis?
posted by peppermintfreddo to Human Relations (55 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I've never heard this except maybe on TV.
My parents certainty didn't do this and my sister and friends don't this.
I wonder if its even common?
posted by KogeLiz at 6:50 PM on September 21, 2011

*Shrug* Silly names and baby talk aside, maybe they're sort of putting on conversational name tags, helping the kid identify who's the mom and who's the dad.

Also, uh, yeah, young kids are self centered. They don't know how to be any other way at that point in their lives.
posted by DisreputableDog at 6:50 PM on September 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

1. So that the child will learn to say "Mommy"
2. Yes, children are that self centered
posted by SLC Mom at 6:51 PM on September 21, 2011 [21 favorites]

My parents absolutely never did this. It was something I noticed and appreciated even when I was still a kid.
posted by Countess Elena at 6:51 PM on September 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

The book Nurtureshock talks about how children learn language. When children are very young, like still babies, they learn words by hearing the word when they see the object named; so if you wiggle around a stuffed horse and say "horsie" they learn that the stuffed horse is "horsie." (Which also means if you wiggle around the stuffed horse and make neighing sounds more often than you say "horse," they think the horse is called neiggggh.) So very young kids might not understand the words "mommy" and "daddy" if they are never clearly labeled for them.

Past a certain age, however, I'm not sure that it matters any longer. At some point they do begin to pick up that pronouns are not proper labels for objects, but I believe that's when they're toddlers or so on average (don't 100% remember the timeline on that).
posted by Nattie at 6:56 PM on September 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

They think it'll be easier for babies or young children to understand proper names because of the one-to-one relationship: a different name for each person. Someone else who's familiar with research on child language development can probably give a cite for the fact that there's a learning curve for a young child figuring out how pronouns work. For instance, "I" and "me" aren't actual names that uniquely identify me, John; I use them when I speak, but everyone else uses those words about themselves when they speak. That's so obvious is seems silly to even point it out, but a young child who's just learning how to understand language has to go through a process of figuring it out.

Personally, I think it's a bad practice. The kids are going to have to learn pronouns eventually, and kids are always bombarded with more language than they can immediately understand. So why not get them used to normal language as early as possible?
posted by John Cohen at 6:56 PM on September 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

I noticed this and thought it was mildly odd too so I started referring to myself as either "El Jeffe" or "The Big Guy" instead of I or me or mine, etc. Seriously. Now my kids tease me and call me those names.

I think it is because little toddler types really are not able to easily differentiate when I is them or when I is me (or the speaker not them). It also adds the sound of authority to say "Father needs you to stop playing and clean up" rather than "I".

It could also be the temporary insanity that comes with sleep deprivation, frustration, and angst associated with being a parent.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 6:57 PM on September 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think by the time a kid would notice it, the parent doesn't need to do it anymore so they usually don't.

I do this currently with my daughter, who is three. I go back and forth between saying "Mummy" or I/me. depending on the situation.

Before she was verbal, I figured it helped her know who we were to her. So she'd know not to call us by our first names.

Little kids are totally self-centred. They also have trouble with the difference between mine and yours.

Kid: "that's mine!"
Me: "yes, that's yours"
Kid: "no, it's *mine*!"
and so on
posted by melissa at 6:59 PM on September 21, 2011 [13 favorites]

Yes; some young children are completely oblivious to the fact that 'me' applies to other people too.

Certain parents are hard-set on making their children feel as if they have a right or a say in every little thing. When my niece was young, she used to get really pissed off by the fact that an adult had to sit in the front passenger seat and she was not allowed to do the same. She actually thought she was on equal footing and couldn't understand why "Mommy" or "Daddy" got to have the front seat and she could not. No amount of logical explanation could convince her that it was safest and for the best. Consider it one of the foibles of modern child-rearing.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 7:01 PM on September 21, 2011

When my cousin was little, she would refer to herself as "you" because that was what people used when they talked to her. "Do you want some cake?", etc.

So I imagine it's to help little kids learn language.
posted by Xany at 7:01 PM on September 21, 2011 [8 favorites]

Also, if there are two people around, they could label each other and presumably never use the third person technique. I don't know how much research, if any, has been done about that sort of thing. You can assume, though, that if a kid doesn't hear the word "mommy" from anyone, they won't learn it.

I just remembered that I myself called my dad "mommy" until I was three or four because however they used the word around me, it made me just think "parent." My dad was a stay at home dad and it's possible I thought that was something only "mommy" could do, plus despite that, my mom was usually the one I went to if I wanted anything. One of the reasons kids learn those words is not just because parents push it on them, but because if they say them, they get a big reaction. When a kid is very young, the most important thing they can learn to say is how to summon a parent to them. Since "mommy" worked for both my parents, I called both my parents "mommy" for a while.
posted by Nattie at 7:01 PM on September 21, 2011

A guess: speaking in the first-person makes commands sounds subjective. Externalizing that to a third-person (even if that's a self-reflective gesture) adds something to the authority of command/request. Not that babies or even adults are necessarily aware of the difference.
posted by iftheaccidentwill at 7:02 PM on September 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm 33 and my mom still leaves me messages that say..."Mommy loves you..." which obviously isn't to imprint language on me, but just to say, "of everyone, know that *Mommy* loves you", so that might be part of it -- this is what MOMMY thinks and MOMMY has to say...?
posted by sweetkid at 7:02 PM on September 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

It probably also helps reinforce that kids are (in many families) not to call their parents by their given name.
posted by wierdo at 7:04 PM on September 21, 2011

I do this all of the time, but only recently. My son is 2 and is very slow verbally although he understands everything in 2 languages. But I am still awaiting the coveted "Mommy" from him and I figure the more I say it, the more likely he is to learn it.

(I am sure a day will come where I wish he didn't know how to call me by name, but darn it, I just want to hear it so badly today that I am willing to speak of myself in the 3rd person).
posted by murrey at 7:09 PM on September 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

"give mommy the ______" means the same thing no matter who says it. it is a language teaching, consistency thing. you transition to the proper pronouns when they start speaking. i don't think it anything to do with "modern child rearing" or kids who don't know their place.
posted by nadawi at 7:10 PM on September 21, 2011 [15 favorites]

Pronouns are tricky for little kids. My 2 y.o. says "Daddy hold you!" when she wants to be picked up. When I say things like "Daddy doesn't like it when you throw your food" it's because I want to be clear to her that I am the one that is unhappy with her behavior.
posted by gnutron at 7:10 PM on September 21, 2011 [4 favorites]

Pronouns are a sophisticated linguistic concept, several steps advanced beyond the simple reference of proper nouns. It's easier for kids to understand that "Daddy" only refers to one person; the concept that "I" refers to whoever is saying it is much more advanced. Pronouns are difficult enough that the classic Abbott and Costello routine "Who's on First" plays on this.
posted by googly at 7:16 PM on September 21, 2011 [7 favorites]

Babies and toddlers don't even really understand that you're not a figment of their imagination, and pronouns don't help.

Something that does help, not that you asked, is some minimal use of sign language. But you still need to verbalize something.

However, I'm sure parents that insist on never doing this end up with kids who figure it out just fine on their own, whatever. The things I really thought mattered when I had babies, they don't matter anymore now that my kids are older, and in fact I wish I had such things to overthink these days.
posted by padraigin at 7:20 PM on September 21, 2011

Are young children so self-centred that they do not understand that the concept of 'me' applies to other people too

posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 7:21 PM on September 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

I will now confess to all of Metafilter that I do this. I don't mean to. It was definitely about language acquisition at first--I adopted my kids when they were past infancy and I was all about supercharging language. The pediatrician made a point of saying, "Talk constantly and identify everything you see verbally." So even in the car, it was a constant stream of chatter: "Oh, there's a blue car over there at the green house and here's a big church and the now the light is turning red so we're going to stop at the stoplight and wait for this nice lady to cross the street with her big dog."

But here's my theory: it's pretty weird to refer to my husband as Daddy, as in, "Daddy and I are going out tonight so the babysitter will be here." But, it's slightly easier if I'm also referring to myself as Mommy, as in "Daddy and Mommy are going out tonight."

My kids are 6 and 8 and I'm trying to stop when I catch myself doing this.

Another related thing I'm trying to stop: the married "we." I hate that.
posted by bluedaisy at 7:22 PM on September 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

This isn't egotism, it's language acquisition. Parents instinctively know how to pass language on to their children. If you say "I" and "me" to a nine-month old, you aren't teaching them who you are. Something inside you knows that you want your child to associate the word "papa" with you, so you say that word when you want the child to think about you.

Do you think parents and day care workers use sing-song intonation when speaking with babies because they saw it on TV and they want to act like teletubbies? No, they do it because it works; it helps the babies understand the contours of language, even if it sounds natural and (to some people) sickeningly sweet and indulgent.

Children don't just download language. The path to language acquisition isn't a straight line. For example, when children first learn to speak they naturally use irregular word forms (buy/bought, good/better, etc) because that is what they hear. But then at a certain age, maybe around 3 years old, something clicks in their brain about patterns and they start using those patterns. So they start saying "buyed" instead of "bought" and "gooder" instead of "better". It can take years for them to learn their way back to the proper usage that they had for a few months when they were two years old.

This isn't because they're stupid or egotistical or because their parents are indulging them. It's because language acquisition is one of the great achievements of the evolution of life and earth, it's lovely and it's messy and it wasn't designed in Redmond or Cupertino.
posted by alms at 7:23 PM on September 21, 2011 [35 favorites]

Mommy thinks someone is reading way too much into this.
posted by pantarei70 at 7:34 PM on September 21, 2011 [6 favorites]

I do this all the time. It's a way to soften an admonishment. Also, kids take a while to fully comprehend the idea of "I", "me", and "you".
posted by KokuRyu at 7:34 PM on September 21, 2011

For instance, "I" and "me" aren't actual names that uniquely identify me.

This comment explains the common toddlerese also mentioned in another comment above, "Daddy hold you." Very common, because the child, who hears herself being called "you," then refers to herself as "you." She might say: "You need din din!" when she's hungry. And when Mommy refers to herself as "I," the baby calls Mommy "I." The pronoun (technically a "shifter" because its referent shifts depending on the speaker) take several years to master. In my opinion this is a technical issue of language development, not a matter of children being self-centered.
posted by Tylwyth Teg at 7:35 PM on September 21, 2011 [5 favorites]

Embarassing data point: I do this with my cats, who presumably will never learn to call me "mommy." Not sure I really want to unpack this behavior.
posted by thebrokedown at 7:35 PM on September 21, 2011 [29 favorites]

Naming things (including yourself) is how kids acquire language. Pronouns come later. That's all.
posted by gaspode at 7:43 PM on September 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

I do this too, for all the various reasons listed above. Folks who maintain that their parents never did this - how on earth do you know? Do you remember being less than two???
posted by kitcat at 7:48 PM on September 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

To avoid using pronouns and also because young children love to hear the names of the parents.
posted by michaelh at 7:50 PM on September 21, 2011

Like most parents, we do this some of the time and use pronouns some of the time.

I have a two-year-old and an infant. With the infant I just blabble on using lots of different words, including "I'm your mommy!" With the toddler, there's more of a definitive split: when conversing with him, I usually just talk normally. ("I think we should go to the park, what do you think?") But when it's very important that he understand, I use mommy: "Mommy will come back and pick you up after nap time." or "Daddy is at work, but mommy will take you to swim. These sorts of important information he will then repeat: "Daddy work, MOMMY go to swim." "Right." And then he'll mention it again a few hours later. Whereas if I say, "Your daddy's at work, but I will take you to swim" it just doesn't seem to stick. Giving him the words HE would use seems to help him understand and remember better. Other people's divisions of when they use it is probably different, but I find it makes a very big difference in his ability to incorporate understanding of a specific pending event when I use the words he would use so he can repeat (more or less) verbatim.

I'm sure as they age out of this phase I'll have trouble stopping doing it regardless. I find myself narrating my trips to the grocery store to myself even when I go alone since I'm so used to doing it for my kids. ("Hm, should we get bananas? Those are nice YELLOW bananas. You like bananas a lot!")

That's why Elmo speaks of himself in the third person, incidentally: It's how kids that age talk because it helps them learn language.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:15 PM on September 21, 2011 [6 favorites]

oh god, my parents still do this but i'm 33- It gets really confusing when my dad says "mom" and I don't know if he's referring to his mother or mine! Just habit i guess. . .
posted by abirdinthehand at 8:49 PM on September 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

I sometimes refer to myself in the third person when talking to my daughter. She's 23.

What? It's funny.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 9:00 PM on September 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

My daughter's teacher when she started school did this - "Sit down and listen to Mrs Trenery" and it was really annoying. 5-year-olds do not need that sort of nonsense. That said, I still say "Come to Mummy" to my 2-year-old.
posted by slightlybewildered at 9:05 PM on September 21, 2011

I have a toddler and do this mostly when I'm trying to reinforce that I am The Mommy and he is The Kid. He's 2.5 going on 15 with the attitude, so that's pretty often these days.
posted by TallulahBankhead at 9:22 PM on September 21, 2011

It's all about language acquisition. Toddlers are easily frustrated and are still learning how to make their needs known, beyond whining, crying, pointing and tantrums. Naturally, parents prefer that kids USE THEIR WORDS for god's sake. So you model the behavior you want, and they catch on as their development allows:

Kid: *Whines, gestures to be picked up*

Mom: Do you want me to hold you? (Demonstrating preferred method of communication)

Kid: Hold you!

Mom: *Picks kid up*

They sort their pronouns out pretty quickly, but anything that makes communication smoother in their toddler years is fantastic. Watching kids develop language is a blast.
posted by Space Kitty at 9:22 PM on September 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

They simply look at themselves during the moment, and become the actor the most believed, but only for a split-second. Then disappointment.
posted by Mblue at 9:23 PM on September 21, 2011

I'm off and on with the pronoun thing. I refer to myself as "mama" to my 9-month-old more than I thought I would. I am not too into the sing-songy baby talk but I do do it. Probably daily. Babies really respond to it. When she was 3 months, I took her to visit some relatives and my aunt really launched into some serious high-pitched baby goo-gooing. I had not done much of that at that point. Guess what? She loved it!

I think in general, our innate response to babies is there for a reason. A friend's 14-month-old has a hardcore babble going on. She sounds like she is having a very realistic conversation with you but it's just baby words. The funny thing is, she uses the sing-songy higher pitched voice on other babies! Now, she's probably learned that from her parents but it's just fascinating.
posted by amanda at 9:32 PM on September 21, 2011

Externalizing that to a third-person (even if that's a self-reflective gesture) adds something to the authority of command/request

In Malay culture, referring to yourself in the third person either by your title, pet name or even given name is considered intimate and warm. Perhaps it's considered that way because it is a carry-over from baby talk, and not the other way round, I don't know. But grown men and women will say the equivalent of "sonnyboy would like some rice" when speaking to their mother, or "darling will fix that for you" when speaking to their spouse, etc. It is very endearing.
posted by BinGregory at 10:06 PM on September 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

my son is 5 months old.

I do it to teach him words - Mommy, Daddy - His Name.

Also the pet's names.
posted by jbenben at 10:51 PM on September 21, 2011

I started with third-person mentions of myself, when talking to my kids. I also see it as a language development thing, and I don't think it hurts the kids. In time they'll learn, and parents switch to first-person pronouns.

Though, funny enough, my older (almost 3 year old) son calls me "papa" as well as by my name (and I'd say mainly by my name, since that's what other people call me -- something he hears a lot).
posted by haykinson at 10:58 PM on September 21, 2011

It's to do with theory of mind, and lots of research has actually been done on this. (Look for 'social cognition' and 'theory of mind' and 'pronoun use' or 'child language acquisition' if you want to read some.)

Up until the age of four or five, children have not yet learned to model the world from any other person's perspective than their own. It's a hard thing to do, to imagine you are someone else and then to relabel people how that other person would.

It's similar to the test you give small children where you put rocks into a chocolate box in front of them, while their mother is out of the room, and then ask what is in the box. They say "rocks". Then mother comes back in, and you ask the child what the mother will think is in the box. Up until the age of five or so, kids will say "rocks" not "chocolates". They have no idea that the mother won't have access to exactly the same knowledge that they do.

Similarly, a mother will often refer to the child's father as "daddy", even though the father is not HER daddy. And will refer to her father as "granddad", ie. modelling everything from the child's perspective, to save the kid the effort of trying to translate hers.
posted by lollusc at 2:02 AM on September 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

I think it is extremely rare to find a parent only ever using one method of speech - these patterns serve very specific and intuitive processes. BUT there is a difference between toddlerese (that sing song, pitch modulated tone) and baby talk (pronoun misuse, non-words). In other words "how's my bubby dooooooing? Mummy loves yoooouuu, yes she does!" emphasizes vowels, modulated question tones an identifies the speaker with an individual title while still using pronouns, mostly correctly, just in third person. Saying "bubby go bye-bye, me need din dins" uses all the pronouns incorrectly, allows for no communication of sentence construction or naming, doesn't teach tonal modulation because there is no sentence structure and doesn't even teach them real words.
posted by geek anachronism at 4:43 AM on September 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, and the reason toddlerese works over "hello child, I'm sitting down to dinner, would you like some?" is that it emphasises language use in a way normal speech doesn't and also specifically codes it as speech to children. How often do you narrate that stuff without a child around? Speaking to infants as if they are another adult doesn't assist them to learn language because they need to hear more than another adult. Which is how my daughter ended up delayed - I used toddlerese for the most part, but on the overall structure of talking to another adult. Which meant little narration, which meant a lot fewer words than if I did narrate. Which meant slower verbal language (totally awesome receptive language though!) - nowadays she's mostly caught up. But nowadays we deliberately narrate more and talk more and yes, still occasionally use toddlerese even though she's getting to the point where it is no longer necessary (yours and mine are fine, I and me are still a bit iffy).
posted by geek anachronism at 4:54 AM on September 22, 2011

Some people like reminding themselves of their role as parents.

Some of us use "Mama" as a survival strategy to remind ourselves that we have an identity apart from being a mother.

Oddly, I just realized that I still refer to myself in third-person with my 3-y-o, but not with my 7 y-o, and I'm not sure when I made the transition.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:51 AM on September 22, 2011

Are young children so self-centred that they do not understand that the concept of 'me' applies to other people too, or are parents going through some sort of identity crisis?

I came in to say you bet small children are that self-centered, but now also want to add that you bet new parents are going through an identity crisis. The Hyper-Responsibility That Does Not End takes some getting used to, after a lifetime of aforementioned self-centeredness.
posted by Ellemeno at 6:10 AM on September 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

After a while, I think it becomes a mechanism of depersonalization. For example, my four year old daughter would still rather stay home and play with me instead of going to the day care. When she asks why for the umpteenth time, I reply with "Mama has to go to work". Maybe somewhere deep down, I don't want to disappoint her but I am OK with this abstract Mama person disappointing her.

Most of the time I use the first person pronoun with her, but sometimes Mama helps me out.
posted by crazycanuck at 7:31 AM on September 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm not going to say that every parent does this, but I know plenty who did, including me. Those who do this, however, do transition out of it at some point. If I had to guess (and I have to because my kids are 14 and 11 and it's been a long, long time since I referred to myself in the third person when talking to them), I'd say maybe around age 3 or 4?

My mother, however, still does it when she's talking to my kids. Annoys the hell out of me.
posted by cooker girl at 7:32 AM on September 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Until I was 8 or so, I referred to all my adult relatives by name. My mother eventually told me that my grandparents had asked her to have me stop. Shortly after that, I figured that if it was bothering my grandparents, my parents couldn't be super happy with it either. I switched to Mom and Dad for my parents and Grandma and Grandpa from my grandparents.

So if you don't talk like this, your child has a chance of simply learning your first name and calling you by that. Up to you if that's good or bad.
posted by Hactar at 7:33 AM on September 22, 2011

It's to do with theory of mind, and lots of research has actually been done on this.

I do not believe the reason I hear parents speaking like this is because they've studied the research. In fact, there's always an authoritarian aspect to referring to yourself by your title, which I've found annoying all through my life, as early as by my elementary school teachers and the parents of certain of my classmates. (Needless to say, those were not the cool parents.)
posted by Rash at 8:35 AM on September 22, 2011

I'm not sure of the proper terminology but indefinite, shifting words can be tough on the little ones. Proper nouns are less confusing. I think this is why you hear a lot of little kids speaking of themselves in the third person.

I had an insane (and insanely long-running) conversation with my son about today, tomorrow and yesterday. He just couldn't get his head around it always being today, and if we are going to do something special tomorrow when we are doing that special thing it is today, and then once we've done it it is yesterday. That's some tricky stuff that we take for granted.

I, you, me might be the same way. From the inside everyone is me (or I, to further confuse matters) looking out at a you. Everyone says me and I and you all the time, and everyone is talking about someone different! But there is only one mommy (unless there are two in the 'Heather Has Two Mommies' sense, in which case I imagine there are two different 'mommy' style names, but you know what I mean, and I digress), and the only way you are going to know that in the first place is if mommy tells you, again and again, just like every other thing in the first little bit of your life.
posted by dirtdirt at 10:11 AM on September 22, 2011

A friend of mine learned as child that the color orange was called "green," and green was called "orange." Sick trick on her father's part! She didn't learn the truth until she was almost twelve, after many years of teasing and linguistic neglect. Her teachers all thought she was rascally or obtuse.

To this day she 'corrects' herself mentally before naming them aloud.
posted by fritillary at 4:20 PM on September 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Hey everyone, thanks so much for all your answers, it is all so fascinating!

Being as yet childless, I was thinking I would never do this, just shows how clueless I am about children. (Hmm... maybe that's why my job as an au pair didn't work out?) But I can see now how important it is for communication and development.

Thanks for opening my eyes, I'll think of this every time I call myself Mummy when talking to my future babies. And as much as it might make me cringe now, I'm sure I'll get a real kick out of it when it's my turn!
posted by peppermintfreddo at 7:11 PM on September 22, 2011

Pronouns are relative to who's speaking. Nouns are absolute for these purposes.
posted by joost de vries at 8:17 PM on September 22, 2011

I wasn't suggesting that parents have studied the research :) or saying that it is something people should consciously do. I'm saying that there are valid reasons why little children may respond better to this pronoun/kinship noun shifting, and a better response/less confusion will reinforce something that parents may naturally have started doing for other reasons.
posted by lollusc at 10:12 PM on September 22, 2011

FWIW, my children refer to almost all adults as "Miss First Name" and "Mr. First Name" because it keeps the confusion down--we are all clear on who's being referred to (as opposed to me calling someone by a first name, but referring to her as Mrs. Last Name) and it preserves politeness (a Southern tradition, I am told).
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:50 AM on September 23, 2011

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