Blog Post

Using the 3rd person with children

Why do people refer to themselves in the third person when they’re talking to children?

This week I listened to a conversation between a mother and son while they were collecting new glasses from the optometrist. The son looked to be about 8, and was being told that he should clean his glasses every night. The mother said something like:

‘You’ll give them to Mummy every night, like your sister does, and Mummy will clean them for you. Mummy can look after them.’

Presumably the boy is used to the mental gymnastics of understanding that ‘Mummy’ is the person doing the talking – the ‘I’ in any normal conversation. She’s not some third person who is being referred to by name because she’s not present in the conversation.

It’s astonishing, really, that children learn to use pronouns as efficiently as they do, when they get so many confusing demonstrations in normal conversation.

Occasionally I ask people why they use the third person with children, and they never seem to have an answer. Most don’t even notice that they’re doing it!

Presumably it’s something cultural, because it’s not based on any comprehension deficit. Children work out the relationships between speakers very early. And, if they’re given good models, they can use pronouns with ease.

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