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Why do parents refer to themselves in third person, when talking to small kids? I've seen this happening in German, English and Russian and I do this myself (even though I try not to, because I think, it is odd). I've read some explanations on this website, but the answers did not convince me. They mostly say, that it is for the children to learn to say "mommy" and "daddy".

My own explanation would be, that children don't understand the difference between the pronouns yet. If I'd say "I am kicking the ball" and then did so, the child would refer to me as "I", not as "you". So the problem is, that I refers to person talking, not like a name to a specific person.

Has any research been done, I could be pointed to? Are there more and better explanations?

  • I had had never heard this error in usage before until we had children. – user1919 Mar 31 '13 at 1:30
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Parents might do this instinctively to help children avoid pronoun reversal-errors (among other potential benefits in language acquisition).

I published a paper about this where I considered a previous connectionist model of pronoun acquisition. The results lead to a hypothesis that using more third-person (like the nouns 'mommy' and 'daddy') can help reduce pronoun reversal-errors in children. Unfortunately we haven't had the time/resources to set up real baby experiments to verify this, yet.

  • Don't the answers in that question say that pronoun reversal-errors are not really an issue for kids learning languages? (i.e. they always reverse the pronoun correctly) – Louis Rhys Sep 27 '11 at 4:37
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    yeah, reversal-errors are not very common. But they do happen occasionally. Some of the early work showed that (for example) second-born children are much more likely to make reversal errors than first-born. Further, if a child does make a reversal error, it tends to persist for a while until they correct it. So although most children do not make the errors, enough make them to be able to achieve such measurements. – Artem Kaznatcheev Sep 27 '11 at 4:43
  • I've downloaded your paper, @Artem, and will have a look. I am not a linguist though. – Amelse Etomer Sep 27 '11 at 5:14
  • @Sebastian okay, if you have any questions feel free to email me. – Artem Kaznatcheev Sep 27 '11 at 5:18
  • I did it with my kids because I think people use ambiguous pronouns too often. Waaayyy too often. – RonJohn Sep 5 at 20:04
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The little bit of research I was able to turn up suggests that parents use pronouns a lot when speaking to kids. Laasko and Smith (2007) [PDF] did a corpus study of child directed speech, and produced this graph representing the most frequent syntactic subjects they observed.

Syntactic subjects from Laasko & Smith (2007)

It may be the case that parents refer to themselves in the third person when talking to kids more than they do when talking to adults, but you and I are still the most common sentential subjects.

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    This graph looks interesting, but isn't really informative unless it's compared with syntactic subject frequencies in conversation between adults. – Alek Storm Sep 27 '11 at 4:21
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    The graph is very interesting, but it would be better, if it was done separately for each sex, so that it was clear, if Mom uses the word "Mommy" more often "Daddy" and vice versa. Otherwise they could just refer to the other parent. – Amelse Etomer Sep 27 '11 at 5:12
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    @AlekStorm, fair enough, but this graph at least goes to show that parents may only be boosting their rate of third person self-reference, rather than avoiding pronominal self-reference altogether. – JoFrhwld Sep 27 '11 at 12:17

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