Wednesday, May 4, 2011


About once a day I find myself saying about Polly, “That’s something that Pip use to do.” Usually I say this as a reminder when Poly does something I don’t like – chucking a stuffed animal across the room, flinging her feet up on the dinner table, holding her hand against a running faucet and spraying water everywhere. These are the experiments and antics of a two-year-old, and as she grows older they will disappear. The reminder keeps me from getting too worked up about them.

But, there is at least one thing Polly does for which Pip provided no precedent: Polly always speaks about herself in the third person. Unlike some other households where the chorus of “MINE!” can pound you into the ground, our house is filled with oddly royal declarations of third-person self-referentiality like “May Polly go play with Polly’s toys?” and “Polly want to do it” or when things are slipping out of her grasp just “POLLY!” For her, there is no “I” or “me” or “my.” There is only “Polly.”

How this came to be I am not sure. I would like to blame Elmo, Sesame Street’s little red monster whose own statements of perpetual self-reference I have read over and over to Polly. Ava tells me I’m being silly, and she’s probably right. Its more likely Polly picked this up from us than from Elmo.

As I pondered this, I realized that I refer to “Daddy” a lot in talking with the kids. When we’re getting ready to do something, I tell them what Daddy is going to do. When I need to run down to the basement for a moment, I tell them that Daddy will be right back. When I put them down for a nap, I tell them that Daddy loves them. At times it sounds like I’m talking about another person or that I’m trying in a subtle way to hold the Daddy identity at arms length from me. But, neither is the case. Instead, this is mostly just a habit born of my early attempts to act cute with Polly and Pip.

Another likely culprit in this situation is birth order. Polly was born into a world in which words constantly swirled around her. Much of this was driven by discussions with or questions asked by the ever loquacious Pip. As such, before she could talk Polly heard conversations about her all the time. And within these conversations, she was obviously never “I” or “me;” she was always “Polly.”


When Polly first started talking, one of the things she did was to lay claim to things by using her name. If she wanted something, she would point at it then make a clasping gesture with her hand and say “Polly.” It was so much more amusing and endearing than “mine!” that we didn’t make any real efforts to change it. Now she is two years old and in transition from speaking in sentences to speaking in paragraphs. I still find the absence of personal pronouns in her speech amusing and endearing, but it is probably time to teach her the correct way to refer to herself in everyday speech. I don’t want her to reach twelve years of age and still be talking about herself in the third person like some professional athlete with an over-inflated ego. I imagine it would not go over well with her middle school teachers when she says “Polly decided not to do her homework today. Perhaps Polly will do it tomorrow.”

Unfortunately, I don’t really know how to go about correcting her. Since this was not a challenge I had to resolve with Pip, I don’t have a blueprint to follow or a history of mistakes to avoid. I’m at square one and have to feel my way along. At first, I thought that if I corrected my own use of “Daddy” and started using the first-person more often, she would follow suit. This appears to not be working. After a couple of months of correcting myself, Polly has yet to volunteer an “I” or a “me” of her own volition.

So now I am stepping up the interference. During meals and whenever I get a chance I am asking her to repeat any sentence in which she uses “Polly” instead of the correct personal pronoun. I give her the corrected version and then ask her to say the sentence again. This is a tactic Ava and I have used in trying to get the words “please” and “may I” into the kids’ regular usage, and we’ve had enough success with this that it seems worth trying for the third-to-first person switch as well. At this point, I’m not sure what other strategy there is.


Ultimately, I’m not in a hurry to erase Polly’s self-referentiality. I figure that for now if I can get her to use “I” or “me” every once in a while then I have established the idea well enough for a more sustained push later on. As she gets older and more conscious of what she says and how she says things, then we can really work on it. At four years old, Pip has been remarkable in his ability to quickly change established linguistic habits once we point them out to him and provide him with an alternative. I imagine the same will be true for Polly. When the time comes and she swiftly dispenses with "Polly" in favor of "I" and "me," I suspect I will once again be saying, “Pip used to do that, too.”


  1. I don't think you need to worry about it too much. With correction and authentic input, she'll suss it out.

    According to one model in the research (I teach child language acquisition) Polly's at stage one of pronoun development, where they use people's names. If you think about it, "I" and "me" are pretty tricky. They change what they mean several thousand times a day. Names are much easier.

    At stage two she'll start to use pronouns, but usually 'me' for everything. Me do that. Me want it. By stage three she'll have everything in the right place.

    There's a similar process of development with negative formations, and it's really nothing to worry about. As my friend who also has kids says, nobody gets to 30 and the only word they can say is "train!". She'll get the hang of it.


  2. Thanks for your encouragement, James. I know that it is just a matter of letting time and experience do their work, but the difference between Polly and Pip with regard to personal pronoun usage at age two is unsettling just the same.