It is natural for us, as adults, to ask babies and toddlers lots of questions. They can’t yet effectively communicate their thoughts and desires so we ask them what they need (e.g., “Do you want water?”), check for understanding (e.g., “You want your socks on?”), and offer choices (e.g., “Do you want the red ball or the yellow ball?”). However, it is easy to come to rely upon questions when communicating with your child. Moreover, some adults bombard a child with questions in a way that actually interferes with the back-and-forth, conversational nature we want to nurture in children from the time they are babies. Below are some reasons why you should limit your questions, how you can limit them, and what types of questions to ask.
Why should you limit the number of questions you ask your young child?
It decreases the naturalness of the interaction. When you bombard your child with question after question there is little room for them to come up with their own ideas.
It places added demand upon early language users. Babies and young toddlers are still learning how to send that complicated message from their brain to their mouth in order to make their lungs, vocal cords, tongue, lips, teeth, jaw, and cheeks all work together in order to communicate their idea (e.g., “Doggie!”). Your child wants to say “doggie” long before you ask “What’s that?” That extra pressure can actually make it harder to say the word.
It can create a habit of not responding to questions. When we ask children so many questions in so little time, they cannot possibly answer all of them. This encourages them to form a habit of simply not responding. When questions are asked thoughtfully and selectively, children are better able to respond with consistency.
Some adults ask questions that are too hard for a child to answer. This, again, discourages opportunities for natural, back-and-forth exchanges.
Many questions test toddlers' knowledge (e.g., “What color is this? What shape is that? What’s this?”) instead of being guided by your child’s interests. Children love when adults label and talk about their interests. E.g., “You made a tower. It’s so tall!”
What you can do instead of asking questions:
Turn a question into a comment. Instead of “Are you driving the car?” say, “You’re driving so fast!” Instead of “What’s that?" say, ”Look at that fluffy, white dog.”
Imitate your child. Wait to see how your child communicates then copy what she does. Whether your child produces a gesture, sound, word, or phrase, when you imitate her you reinforce her communication, and you acknowledge you have heard what she said. Imitating a child’s communication makes her feel powerful and important.
Interpret his message. This can be thought of as “say what he would, if he could.” So if your child is grunting and reaching for the milk, say, “More milk.” If he sees a cat and says “gah!” say, “Ooh, there’s a cat.”
Expand his message. If your child says “up,” say, “Up. Pick me up.”
Join in and play! If your child is driving a car around saying “car, fast,” get your car and push it around saying “My car is slooow.”
Create verbal routines. These are repetitive and predictable phrases. “Ready-set-go” and “1-2-3” are common ones but get creative! While taking a bath say “Time to…pour!” or when swinging say “swing uuup, swing dooown!” You can eventually add some pauses to see if your child will finish the verbal routine.
What types of questions to ask:
First, balance your questions with comments and other types of language. Aim for a 3:1 ratio (for every question you ask, make 3 comments before asking another question).
Choice questions: giving toddlers choices is a great tool for eliciting language, expanding language, and giving them more control. If they say “ball” you can ask “Should we roll the ball or kick the ball?”
Consider the age of the child and the difficulty of the question. The following question types are in order from easiest to hardest: yes/no, what, where, who, when/how/why. Try to avoid asking questions that your child cannot yet answer or are simply testing her knowledge.
Now go start a conversation with a toddler. Or, better yet, let the toddler start the conversation!