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Why Do Children Talk to Themselves?

written by: Lamar Stonecypher • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 2/8/2012

Little Jenny is capable of carrying along a happy conversation with herself - and inanimate objects - when not directly supervised. What purpose, if any, does her self-directed speech serve? There are several theories. In this article we'll look at them from a psychological perspective.

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    Sarah is working in the kitchen, preparing her family's evening meal. Although she seems intent on her task, part of her mind is monitoring her daughter Jenny in the adjacent living room.

    Jenny, four years old, is easy to keep up with because she talks to herself - almost constantly when she's occupied and thinks she's alone.

    "Oh, you don't fit here!" Jenny exclaims, as she plays with a peg and slot game. "I need a red one. You're not round! Besides, you're too big."

    Sarah hears the clack of wooden pegs, and she smiles. Jenny's ability to amuse herself is a never-ending source of delight and satisfaction for Sarah.

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    Private Speech and Egocentric Speech

    Psychologists refer to such speech as Jenny's as private speech. All people, including adults, talk to themselves. The difference in adult and child private speech is that adults talk to themselves in private, while children talk to themselves in public places, like in school and on playgrounds, as well as in private. Sometimes this speech is pretend dialog, as in an animated "conversation" with a doll or pet, but it more often fulfills other functions for the child.

    What those other functions are has been the subject of much research.

    Psychologist Jean Piaget suggested that the private speech of children was linked to their developmental immaturity. They lack, he claimed, the ability to take on the perspective of the listener and mold their conversation to suit. Piaget called this egocentric speech.

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    Private Speech and Developmental Stages

    Later researchers questioned this conclusion. In fact, they found that children spent far more time in social speech, talking with adults and with each other, than they did in private speech. Children between the ages of four and eight spend an average of only twenty percent of their time talking to themselves. Perhaps, the researchers theorized, private speech might serve some other purpose.

    Russian researcher Lev Vygotsky observed that private speech often tends to mirror social speech. He thought that it was an important part of the child's self development. He and later researchers have described three stages in the development of children's private speech.

    In the first stage, private speech follows an action - "I made a boo-boo." In the second stage, it accompanies an action - "It rolls further when I kick it harder." In the third and last stage, it precedes an action - "I am going to jump from the porch to the ground."

    Progress from one stage to the next corresponds with the development of thought processes in the child. At the first stage, the child is merely reacting to an event or occurrence. By the last stage, the child is actively planning his actions.

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    Bright Kids Talk to Themselves More Often

    Many studies suggest that the function of private speech is to assist the child in performing some developmental task. In most schools, however, such behavior is not encouraged. Other studies have shown that children given verbal tasks and actually encouraged to speak aloud talk to themselves a great deal. It's not surprising then that children in school tend to accompany their tasks with self-directed speech when an adult is not present.

    Intelligence seems to be a factor. The brighter the child, the more time spent in talking to one's self. There is also an age-related factor. The peak for most children in private speech is around age four. By age eight, most private speech has been curtailed, and the percentage of time spent employing it reaches levels similar to adult usage.

    Other researchers suggest that children internalize, or bring into their internal thought processes, concepts that they might express in private speech as they become more competent and comfortable with their tasks. This may help explain why older children are quieter.

    Interestingly, there is evidence that talking to one's self is related to the quality of performance, particularly in brighter children.

    Applying this knowledge to deal with impulsive children who have poor self-control, therapists help such children by teaching them to give themselves self-directing verbal commands.

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    Self Talk and Play

    But what about that "other work of childhood" - play? Other than in pretend dialogs, how is private speech employed?

    Children have extensive conversations with imaginary friends, pets, and inanimate objects such as dolls and toy trucks. Children employ private speech in their play as a joyous, running commentary on the adventure of each day.

    They talk to themselves to "sound out" their own feelings and notions and to "try on" new emotions and ideas. They play games with words and sounds, and they construct marvelously-wrought spontaneous songs of strung-together words while they play.

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    Why do children talk to themselves?

    According to psychologist Grace Craig, "Private speech is a way of expressing one's feelings, gaining understanding of one's environment, and developing language, as well as being a tool for developing self-control and inner thought."

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    Sources:

    Craig, Grace J. Human Development New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996.

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    Morris, Charles G. Psychology: An Introduction New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996.

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