Thinking Out Loud

I talk to my kid a lot.  He’s five-and-a-half years old now and has some interesting things to say, but long before he was capable of conversation I talked to him quite a bit.  It wasn’t really a conscious strategy, just that I like having a companion sharing my experiences.  In my own childhood, I was treated as a valued companion by my parents and other relatives, who talked to me as if I were an intelligent person–not an itsy bitsy wuggums who needs baby talk and must be sheltered from reality, not a burden who should be seen and not heard–so it comes naturally to me to talk to kids in a normal way about real things.

Lately I’ve read several articles about getting kids to behave in stores, in church, in the car, etc., and noticed that they tend to work from the assumption that the kid needs to be occupied and placated so that the parent can do what needs to be done.  I’ve found that when I think of it that way, Nicholas “acts up” a lot more than when I assume that we’re doing this together and he’s interested in what’s happening.  One way I reinforce this idea is by talking to him about what I’m thinking. Not only does that keep him engaged and feeling involved in what happens to him, but it helps (okay, it does not work 100%!) to prevent him from bothering me by doing or talking about things that interfere with my focus on what I’m doing.  When I’m trying to decide which brand of yogurt is the better value, and he interrupts my train of thought by demanding that I watch him dance, I can hardly blame him if I’ve been driving that train of thought silently inside my head while leaving him to find his own amusement!

Here are some situations in which my thinking out loud helps to control his behavior:


We don’t bring toys into stores.  I’ve never let him eat in stores except where there are free samples.  Instead, I talk to him about what we want to eat, how to choose good towels, whether the larger package at a higher price actually is a better value, etc.  That way we’re sort of doing the shopping together.  Nicholas doesn’t understand every bit of what I say, but that doesn’t matter: He can’t follow the rapid calculations I do, but when I conclude that this one is a better value he knows that’s good.

He is learning some shopping strategies, too!  When he first started talking, he was just imitating the kinds of things I say in stores, picking up random items and frowning, “Trans fat!” or “Made in China!”  But now he matches a coupon to a product and then says, “Oh, it comes in two sizes–check the price per ounce.”  He knows that choosing good apples mainly involves looking at all sides of them, but choosing a cantaloupe involves pressing the stem end, sniffing for ripeness, and knocking on it to listen for a hollow sound.  Ever since my Lenten fast from things made outside North America, he’s been asking me to check the country of origin and following up with, “Is Argentina closer than Thailand?”  (Good question!  Not even Mama knows everything!)

Other shoppers sometimes find it weird, even offensive, that I’m talking to a young child about such adult concerns.  Once I was trying on sneakers in a department store, chattering to my then-eight-month-old baby about how to lace and tie them, when a lady stomped up to me and angrily proclaimed, “He don’t know what you’re saying no more than the man in the moon!  Why you jabbering at him like that?”  I laughed and said, “Oh, I just like having someone to talk to!  He’s my little buddy!” and she was still disgruntled but went away.  That defense worked well enough when he was a baby, but now Nicholas himself often defends us against such naysayers by talking a little bit about the topic so they can hear that he is interested in it and does at least partially understand it–like when we were reading him The Hobbit at age four.  [UPDATE: Our kids understand books because we read them books!]

Of course, as he’s gotten older, his involvement in shopping has meant that he talks a lot in the store, too, giving his opinions about what we should buy.  That can get tiresome!  He’s not always reasonable about accepting that we’re not going to buy everything he wants.  But he’s allowed to have opinions, and we take them into consideration.

Cooking and Housework

My grandma once showed me a letter my mom had written to her when I was a baby, with little sketches of things I was learning to do: crawling, stacking blocks, and cooking!  A drawing shows me in my infant seat, watching with great interest while Mama stirs a steaming wok.  I have many memories of helping around the house and was able to cook a whole simple meal by myself by about 9 years old.  It’s hard to say how much learning of the actual specific skills really began in infancy, but letting me watch and talking to me about it certainly didn’t hurt.

Nicholas enjoyed watching us doing household tasks from the very beginning, and by the time he could sit up he wanted to do them, too, at least to the extent of waving a spatula while Daddy made pancakes or rubbing a rag against the bathtub while I cleaned.  Around 17 months old, he began to get more seriously involved, hanging his cloth diapers on the drying rack and sloshing dishes in the sink, so we had to talk a lot about how to do these things correctly.  Toddlers just learning to talk understand a lot more than they can say!  We did avoid lengthy details in favor of brief, often-repeated principles, like, “Keep the water in the sink.”

These days he really is helpful (when he feels like it…) and usually very good at following directions, especially when he can see that the adult is following directions from a recipe or manual–it’s not me bossing him around; we’re following directions together.  Once in a while, though, he turns the tables and tells us The Way He Usually Does It.

Walking Near Traffic

Cars are my biggest safety worry. It seems that most parents these days are much more worried about kidnapping, but a child is much, much more likely to get hit by a car than to get kidnapped.  We live in the city, so there are sidewalks on almost all streets, but there are also lots of cars most of the time, and nearly every day we see drivers doing dangerous things like running red lights, making illegal turns, or not signaling.  Nonetheless, I’ve been walking to places with Nicholas almost every day since he was a few weeks old.

I think he started learning safety skills when he was a baby riding in a sling carrier.  He could feel when I stopped and started walking, and he could see my face as I watched traffic. The first time he walked outdoors on his own feet, at 15 months old, he stayed on the sidewalk until he reached a corner, stopped at the curb, and looked around–he didn’t quite know what he was looking for, but he knew that’s what you do!

My thinking out loud helps him learn the skills I use to decide when it’s safe to cross the street. For example, “That car isn’t signaling,but it’s moving to the right like it might turn…. Yes, the wheels are turning to the right, so stay back…. Oh, wait, he saw us and he’s waving us to go ahead.” I can tell he’s picking up on these things as he critiques people’s driving with increasing accuracy!

[UPDATES: See Baby’s First Traffic Safety Lesson and Traffic Safety for Little Kids.]

Finding Our Way

When we go to an unfamiliar place, I think out loud about how to get there, whether we are driving or taking public transit or walking.  Nicholas hears the directions, but more importantly he hears the things we need to think about when finding a place: which way to turn, distances, street signs, house numbers, checking a map, finding a room within a building, finding the elevator or stairs, following signs.  Since he was about three-and-a-half, he’s been doing things like pointing to the picture signs in airports and saying, “That way to get our suitcase!” or hearing “Room 408” and responding, “So we need to go to the fourth floor?”  This means he’s usually a help, rather than a hindrance, when I’m trying to find a place while keeping track of all the baggage or steering the car or whatever.

I’ve been motivated by my experiences as a Girl Scout leader: I found that most of the girls, as old as 10 and 11, had no idea where we were most of the time, even in familiar territory; they couldn’t tell me how to get to their houses from the meeting place because their parents drove and they didn’t pay any attention.  The three times I got lost driving a car full of girls to camp (hey, those were three different camps, all in obscure rural locations!), they were very little help, and one time all of them refused to even look at the map, saying, “Oh, I can’t read maps!”  So I encourage Nicholas to be more alert, and when I let him navigate to a familiar location he’s able to find it eventually.

[UPDATE: Don’t be fooled by the idea that 21st-century online maps and GPS relieve us of the need to know how to navigate with our own brains!  Do you want your 16-year-old new driver to get lost in a place with no cell phone reception?!  It’s good for your brain, too, to turn to the smartphone navigation tools only when you can’t find the route after you’ve used your own common sense and map-reading skills.]

Figuring Out What the Heck Is Going On

Once in a while, we find ourselves in some sort of situation that I don’t immediately understand.  For example, when we went to hang up a flyer on the community bulletin board in a local supermarket but found that the bulletin board was gone, I needed to find out whether the store was still allowing people to post flyers and, if so, where.  (Turns out that somebody complained to corporate headquarters that she hired a contractor who had advertised on that bulletin board and he turned out to be a crook, so corporate said the store had to remove the bulletin board rather than face liability issues!!)  By thinking out loud, I teach Nicholas an investigation and decision-making process, and I keep him informed about what we’re doing instead of demanding that he follow unthinkingly as I seek answers.

His familiarity with this “We’re not quite sure what’s happening where, but we’ll figure out what we need to do” kind of situation was very helpful when we had to get home in the midst of protests about the G-20 summit last year.  So there were police in black riot armor marching through the streets, windows smashed, and crowds yelling and tussling–well, how exciting!  We’ll find a safe place to wait for our bus.  We’ll walk a different way today.  It will all work out somehow.

Thinking out loud works for me!  It’s one of my main tools for teaching my child to think the way I do.  Once in a while, as I speak my thoughts I’ll hear something that’s wrong–something I don’t know as much about as I should or, worse, something I’ve distorted so that I’m blaming myself or someone else when I shouldn’t.  Other times, I don’t hear where I’m wrong until Nicholas points it out.  Either way, it’s good to learn where I’m off track and re-evaluate!  I try not to get embarrassed at being “caught” in the wrong by a child but to take that opportunity to demonstrate how to admit that you’re wrong, how to investigate your ignorance or misunderstanding, and how to regroup and keep going.  The great thing about kids is that they’re often more forgiving of me than I am of myself.

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19 thoughts on “Thinking Out Loud

  1. Becca – These are wonderful, wonderful thoughts! I LOVE that you talk with purpose to your child – even as young as when he was in a sling! Little ones are such sponges and it is easy to see that yours has taken note of not only your language but also the content of your words. Way to go mama!


    p.s. Thank you for visiting my blog and for your insightful comment! 😉

  2. Thank you for these tips. I really appreciate it. Our family friend has a daughter who is very well behaved. They have talked to her since she was baby like she was one of them – an adult, included in the conversation. I think it worked well.


  3. I totally agree with talking to them and making them a part of the activity rather than baggage. Miss Add (age 3) enjoys being a part of what we are doing. I can’t remember ever being in a store with her and not talking to her about what we are doing. Every moment is a learning moment in my book 😉 For me and for her ;)Thanks so much for stopping by GOODEness Gracious !

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  10. Oh some of these make me laugh so hard because I am the same way. I’ll be thinking about something in my head and my daughter will interrupt with some of the most interesting things. I need to get better about this at the store, but I think I do a pretty good job when we are on walks or in the car driving somewhere. Thank you so much for linking up at Mom’s Library. You always have great information to share. Hope to see you at the next one!

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  13. Not a parent, but I have worked as a nanny before. I love your tips, and your philosophy – I wish I had read this post before I had worked as a nanny (though I did a lot of what you mentioned instinctively anyway..)

    I’d just like to add that children develop a fear of being wrong quite early on, either through observing negative reactions in adults or through shame etc. This is BAD! So very bad!

    Teach a child to fear being wrong and you ensure that they will HATE LEARNING for the rest of their lives!

    I worked with a girl who was very smart and dyslexic who had a terrible attitude towards learning (through bad teachers, neglectful parents and bullying from peers). I worked with her on her fear of being wrong, and framed any mistake or error as a great sign – it means that you have learnt something (even if it is simply that you didn’t pay attention or that your method was incorrect.) You learn -nothing- new by being right, but you learn tons by being wrong if only you can be comfortable and open to the idea that you made an error.

    I encouraged and praised the girl I worked with when she made errors -because- she was trying, and then we worked together to assess where the error might be. We explored the error without blame or judgement, with an open-minded and inquisitive attitude. Clever or novel methods she used, right or wrong, were praised because not only was it effort, but it was also being creative. Why would anyone want to punish an honest attempt or trying a creative approach to problem solving?

    By holding her hand through reviewing errors, we worked together to change her attitude to learning. I was never worried about ‘encouraging’ bad marks/scores on tests by doing this because if she already knew the correct answer but chose a wrong one, it would feel tedious for her to go through the right method with me and this would be its own negative consequence for her.

    Thanks for the post!

    • Wow, great story! I really like your approach. Have you read How Children Fail, by John Holt? It talks a lot about the heavy focus on “right answers” that can be so paralyzing to kids in school.

      I have not so much a fear of being wrong as a tendency to be overly self-critical when I have made certain types of mistakes. Sometimes I hear Nicholas do this, too, in his own way, like he drops a glob of ketchup on the floor and snaps, “I’m the worst kid in the world!!!” I feel bad about the example I have set, but being self-critical about that doesn’t help much, so instead I try to focus on responding well to him. What seems to work best is a surprised, “Really? What’s the problem?” and when he tells me I say calmly how the problem can be fixed (use a paper towel to pick up the ketchup, and put it in the compost). Often he will do it, and then I say something low-key like, “Great, now we’re ready to eat,” and move on. If I get effusive or even just direct about praising him for resolving his mishap, he’s like, “Maamaaaa, any stupidhead can use a towel.” Other kids operate a little differently, but it is pretty common to feel embarrassed when you get too much attention for doing something that now seems obvious and easy.

      I find that Nicholas sometimes responds to my making some mistake and being self-critical by talking very calmly and being kind, so I guess I am sometimes setting a good example as well as the bad one. 🙂

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