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What does it Mean When Children Talk Aloud to Themselves?


Parents usually think it is cute — and significant — when a two-year-old child talks aloud to herself.

For instance, when 20-month-old Misty says “No!” and shakes her finger when she is tempted to touch a vase on the coffee table in her home, her parents realize she is beginning to internalize the many times she’s been told “No! Don’t touch the vase.”

And when 28-month-old Stacey says “Hot!” whenever he gets close to the oven in the kitchen, his mother is happy that he has learned that the range could be hot and, therefore, dangerous.

At age three, Katie admonishes herself by saying “Katie must not hit” when she’s playing with a friend.

However, moms and dads are less sure about older children talking aloud to themselves. A father, for example, wondered if it was normal for his five-year-old son Brandon to talk aloud to himself. His father has heard Brandon saying: “It’s not nice to break toys. Children shouldn’t break toys ‘cause they cost lots of money.”

Seven-year-old Christina was heard saying, “Bad words are naughty. Good children don’t say bad words. They don’t even think bad words.”

But is this talking aloud by children older than three years of age normal? Or is it an indication of abnormality? Should well-adjusted kids talk aloud to themselves or is it a sign of mental illness?

Laura E. Berk, Ph.D., is one of the foremost authorities on what is called “private speech,” which she has studied for more than 20 years.

In a recent exchange of emails, Laura Berk, a distinguished professor of psychology at Illinois State University, explained the significance of private speech and how it relates to parenting.

Berk’s research has found that young children talk to themselves as much or as often as they talk to other people. In fact, she has discovered that private speech can account for 20 to 60 percent of the remarks a child younger than 10 makes. Even though some parents regard this audible chatter as a sign of disobedience, inattentiveness, or even mental instability, Berk says that private speech is an essential part of cognitive development for all children.

Once children’s cognitive operations become well practiced, they start to think words rather than saying them. Gradually, then, private speech gets internalized as silent, inner speech. However, as most of us can attest, whenever we, adults as well as children, encounter unfamiliar or demanding activities in our lives, we resort to private speech.

Berk has found that when children have warm and responsive parents, those children used more self-guiding private speech. It doesn’t matter whether the task at hand has to do with building with Lego’s or solving math problems, or staying seated and listening to the teacher explain a lesson. No matter what the task or the goal, children who used private speech appropriate for their age were most successful.

How do parents encourage children to develop private speech?

“Private speech,” Laura Berk told me, “emerges out of rich, verbal, collaborative communication between a parent and a child. The parent adapts his or her communication to fit the child’s developmental needs on the task-at-hand, guiding, offering support, and suggesting effective strategies.”

Furthermore, Berk said that verbal dialogue between you and your child is the “best way to promote task-oriented, self-regulating private speech.”

Berk also points out that parents should not view private speech as a skill to be taught because children know how to use private speech. Rather, it’s better to create the conditions that help children use private speech effectively. Such conditions include creating a home environment where you provide communicative support, and you are patient and encouraging while offering the correct amount of assistance given the child’s current skills for whatever the task is that the child is engaged in.

One other thing Laura Berk told me was that it is important for parents to encourage make-believe play.” Make-believe play is intensely self-regulating because it requires that children use language to plan and implement play ideas,” she said. “And make-believe play demands that children follow the rules of social life.

“The major function of private speech,” she concluded, “is self-regulation. Consistent with this idea, we found in our research that of all the free-play contexts, the highest incidence of private speech occurred within dramatic play.”

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