Living with Children: Conversations with a 3-year-old


QUESTION: I’m concerned that my 3-year-old — she’s nearly 4 —daughter has some sort of language issue. For example, even though my brother’s family moved away nearly two years ago, whenever we drive by their former house my daughter will ask if they still live there. If I am wearing a yellow shirt, she’ll ask, “Is your shirt yellow, Mommy?” She knows her colors, by the way. Lately, when she asks a question of that sort, I ask, “What do you think?” I’m trying to get her to figure it out on her own, but she immediately becomes quiet, like she’s confused. She’s very bright for her age, but could she have a language problem? On the one hand, I’m worried. On the other, she can grate on my nerves.

ANSWER: I think you’re making a mountain out of a molehill. If there is a problem, it would fall into one of three categories: discipline, development, or disorder. You’re certainly not describing a discipline problem, and while I don’t have enough information to be definitive about the latter two possibilities, more than forty years experience as a parent, grandparent, and family psychologist lead me to propose that what you’re describing is no big deal.

My sense is she’s simply trying to figure out how to begin conversations with people, starting with you. During the second and third years of life, a child figures out the fundamentals of language and begins constructing sentences. A 3-year-old begins using language to describe the world around her, but threes are known for monologues, not conversation. They’ll go on and on about seemingly nothing, jumping from topic to topic and obviously uninterested in what anyone else might have to say. At four, the art of give-and-take conversation begins to develop.

Your daughter is simply trying to figure out how to have interactive exchanges with other people. And yes, a child’s first attempts at conversation can be annoying, as can attempts on the part of a toddler to learn words (e.g., the constant “What’s that?”).

It takes patience to respond with more than a “Yep” to your daughter’s repetitions and seemingly unnecessary questions, but patience will pay off handsomely for the both of you. Help her learn what conversation is all about by responding to these “annoyances” with a question that causes her to think and draws her into a discussion.

For example, the next time she asks about your brother’s former house, you can ask, “What’s the best memory you have of being at Uncle Bob’s?” or “Do you remember where Uncle Bob lives now?”

If she asks, “Is your dress yellow, Mommy?” you can respond with “Can you name something else that is also yellow?”

Talk to your daughter. Teach her how to converse. The more you help her, the quicker she will develop her conversational skills, and the more you’ll enjoy talking to her. And she will grate on your nerves no more.

[Family psychologist John Rosemond:, Copyright 2022, John K. Rosemond]