Texting with Toddlers

Cindy Hooks Morrison, M.S., CCC-SLP, CLC

Texting with ToddlersSeveral weeks ago, I was sitting at my toddler’s play table, happily playing the part of a satisfied customer at his restaurant and enjoying a very satisfying meal of wooden carrots and felt donuts.  I was just about to gulp down some of my invisible coffee when my three-year-old brought me a plastic phone and told me, “Mommy, here’s the phone, Daddy just texted you.”

Surprised and amused I said, “He did?  That’s wonderful! What did Daddy say?”

The response that I got next was,  “Mommy, he texted you.”

Hmmm…I immediately saw from his facial expression that he had no idea what “text” actually meant.

“What does text mean?”  I asked.

“I don’t know?”  He replied.

Let the lessons begin.  Time for some speech therapy with mom.  That plastic phone had delivered a message alright, a message that I discovered a natural teachable moment to help my little one learn that all texts have meaning.  Texts are written messages or to be more precise a written extension of verbal language.  It was time to start teaching him that if Daddy was texting me, it meant that his Daddy was writing me a letter.  Daddy had something important to tell us.

Like other moms, I text.  There is no denying the convenience that texting brings for a mom.  It allows for quiet communication when a baby is napping, it allows for quick communication with a spouse (i.e. I love you, pick up diapers on your way home, we miss you!) or sharing a laugh or a funny photo our my little cherubs with a friend.

We’ve all been there.  No matter how much you try to prep your little ones with an arsenal of distractions:

Cup in hand – check

Snack – check

Movie – check

Toy – check

Have already visited the potty – check

They still come running like moths to a flame when you start talking on the phone.  It’s actually quite comical: “Mommy, I need…YOU!”

So naturally, it is just easier and a HUGE time saver to send out a quick text rather than ask the caller on the other end to excuse you 100 times as you meet the need(s) of your little ones, before finally getting back to the call only to forget what you had just been talking about in the first place.

The danger of texting while supervising toddlers has gotten a lot of media attention.  Emergency room staff continue to report an increase in preventable accidents occurring while preoccupied parents or caregivers surf the Internet on their smart phones.  Not so “Smart.”  Tragic, but true and this is happening.

However, on a less severe note, there is little research available that indicates how texting is affecting the development of your child’s pragmatic language, the social use of language.  One thing I am absolutely certain of is that it greatly reduces the opportunities for you to model conversational speech to your child.

Why should I be modeling conversational speech, you ask?

When we have a conversation in person or over the phone, we are actually teaching our children.  We are both using and modeling our language, changing and adapting language and following unspoken language rules.

What does that mean exactly?

Having a conversation requires us to initially greet a person.  How we greet our spouse, doctor or a solicitor varies in both the type of greeting that we choose and also the tone we choose to speak with.  My son can always tell when I am speaking to his father, because I always answer the phone with a casual tone, a smile on my face and with the greeting “Hi Sweets!” versus when I am on a work call and am speaking more clinically and professionally.

Once we’ve greeted our caller, we continue on to formulate sentences that inform or give information about a topic  (i.e. “I am running late, I need help, I have great news to share with you.”) or that ask or demand for an item or an action to occur. (“How are you? Want to come over? Can I have a snack? Give me a hug! Come over!)

We then adapt our language based upon the responses we hear so that we are able to take turns, introduce new topics, change topics or repair language when it breaks down.  An example of language breaking down is when you are talking to someone and they say, “what was I saying again?”  When you tell them and they then continue on, you’ve just repaired a communication breakdown.

Your children only hear one side of phone conversations, but they are still able to notice the difference in your tone of voice, your variance in greetings, hear your responses, interpret what messages are making you laugh, making you mad, making you sad and are reading your facial expressions (nonverbal language use).  All of these things teach them.

So does this mean that you should NEVER text again?  Definitely not.

It just means that when you know you have a patient caller, you should take some phone calls live and consider them a teachable pragmatic language moment.  And during other moments, instead of sneaking a text in, try to say out loud what you are texting.

Here is an example:

“Hey Bear Cub, I am going to text your Daddy.  I am sending him a message.” I then grab the phone and begin typing while simultaneously speaking my message out loud, “Dear Daddy (Hi Sweets), I love and miss you and hope your day is great.”  When the timing or message is appropriate, I read the responses out loud so that I have modeled and taught the communication exchange in its entirety.

If you ask my son now what texting means, he will tell you that it means, “Typing a message (to my Dad).” And NOW when he hands over the plastic phone, I get, “Here Mommy, Daddy just texted you – he said that he loves you too.

So remember, speak those texts out loud whenever it is appropriate and the next time a text makes you “LOL” be sure to let your child know that a message sent to your phone from a REAL person made you laugh…and not the phone lying on the counter!

For more information on social language, you can visit the American Speech and Language Association by clicking on the link below: