The perils of parentese , or how I almost forgot how to speak like a grown up

At some point, every parent will catch themselves using baby-talk in adult conversation or humming a children’s song while alone (Wheels On the Bus, anyone?) It’s probably at that moment when you realise you have become fluent in the oft-parodied mark of Life After Baby – parentese.

Few traits so obviously distinguish parents from non-parents than the boo boos of goo goo ga ga, a.k.a parentese.

What drives us to e-nun-ci-ate every syllable or cutesify (is there even such a word?) conversation with rhymes and repetition?

Here’s some common parentese habits, demystified.

Referring to your spouse as “mummy”  or “daddy”
After junior comes into the world, “honey”  or “darling”  very quickly becomes plain old “mama”  and “papa”. We probably pick up this term of address from our own parents. Or maybe it’s a habit acquired from constantly speaking from the child’s point of view. Or it’s just too confusing to switch from one pronoun to another.

Always referring to yourself in the third person
Pronouns are cool. Mummy loves Pronouns. But when mummy talks with a tiny human like RJ, simplicity is key. So mummy will refer to mummy as mummy instead of “me”  or “I”. Hopefully that will make RJ learn to say mummy faster. Yay. Oops, did I call myself mummy again?

Speaking to others through your child
What you say : “Daddy will get ready the bath water for you.”
What you mean : “Dear, could you please prepare the bath water for the baby?”

Using a singsong voice
Blame it on those catchy children songs, popular wisdom tells a high-pitched singsong voice works best to hold the child’s attention.

Repetition, repetition, repetition
I don’t really know-know why I talk like this-this sometimes. Maybe I subconsciously think it’s easier for baby-baby to learn the word ball-ball if I repeat it.

Having a conversation with an adult, in the presence of your child
People will talk to baby and expect you to answer. I.e : “aww, you’re crying. Is it time for your feed yet?”
Sometimes the conversation with veer seamlessly from your child to you. I.e : “Hi baby, what big eyes you have!” (babytalk voice, looking at baby) “so will you be going to the wedding next week?” (grown up voice, making eye contact with you) “yes, what a happy baby you are…” (back to interacting with baby)

When an adult with a child talks to you and your child
I’m not entirely sure what the etiquette is supposed to be like here. Inevitably adults will end up talking to and through the children, interjected with some grown up lines being exchanged.
Typically it may sound like this :
Mother A: “baby, can you hand the ball to mei mei (little sister)?”
Mother B: “honey, where is the ball? Can you play with Jie Jie (big sister)?”
Mother A: So how’s her feeding these days?

Restricting your vocabulary to child-appropriate words only
This is more out of necessity than anything else. Censoring impolite language is vital unless you want baby to pick up the less than savoury words. Kids do say the darndest things!

*Disclaimer: the above is just a tongue-in-cheek look at the strange quirks in this fascinating new world of parenting. I do not advocate the above as a default way of speech.

Speaking PARENTESE is sometimes silly, and feels like a regression (especially if you accidentally lapse into it in important business meeting-meetings, baybeeeeee.)

Incidentally, it is recommended to use full sentences as soon as possible and not truncate one’s vocabulary when speaking to the child. This aids their linguistic development because their brains can pick up nuances in language, dialect and tone much earlier than we realise. In fact, they can distinguish between different languages as early as a few months old!

So go ahead and ditch the parentese for proper conversation, or even phonics, if you prefer hot housing. Nothing beats the singular pleasure of hearing your child speak his first word, or string her first sentence. Can’t wait for RJ to start speaking (I may regret saying this in a few month’s time…) That would be great-great.


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