Saturday, January 02, 2021

Ask Aunt Dorcas: The Chatty Child

This picture kind of says it all.


Dear Aunt Dorcas,

      I could use some advice on how to relate to an intensely talkative and inquisitive five year old. How do I help her learn manners and an awareness of others that's appropriate for her age? These are some examples of things we need to work on: dominating adult conversations, constant interrupting, answering for her younger brother when questions are directed his way, and talking so fast that she's skipping words and difficult to understand. 

     I don't want her to feel as if I'm shutting her down. Neither do I want her to grow up feeling insecure and self conscious about her personality. I don't want her to feel labeled as "too intense" or "talks too much". I don't want to suppress her natural excitement and vivacity for life. 

     I do want her to know that she has a great personality and that it's a wonderful thing to love interacting with people so much. How do I help her cultivate the art of quietness and what are some reasonable social expectations? Especially when a group of adults is having a conversation.

     Along the same line is all the questions. There are days I don't feel questioned, but interrogated. The ones that particularly make my brain feel like it's shorting out are questions about the future, questions that assign motive, absolute questions that include "never" and "always", and questions that don't have a definitive answer. 

     "Why is the baby crying?" "Why is the baby not crying?" "Did you ever, ever in your whole life do xyz?" "What did your mom say when you were a little girl like me and did xyz?" If we read a story she often has questions about other things the fictional characters thought or did.

     I've wondered before if she actually wants to know all this stuff or if at least some of these questions are placeholders in a conversation because she thrives on the connection the back and forth brings. How do I respond positively to this instead of giving short frustrated answers or "I don't know's" and feeling like I could weep some days because my brain has no space to think? Ironically, I'm a very talkative person, have been called "intense" many times, and am fairly analytical myself. Yet I can feel a little overwhelmed by it all some days. 

      Some things I think about: Is it ever ok to tell your child to stop asking questions for a little while or should a parent always try to answer to the best of their ability? Do we encourage our children to be this way because conversations with little ones tend to be adults asking them a lot of questions? Do I encourage her to make statements and observations instead of framing everything as a question?

 Did I ask enough questions? Ha! The apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Here's one more; an overarching question which probably could have been the extent of my letter in the first place. How does a parent train and shape a child's personality in a way that honors their God given uniqueness and encourages healthy self esteem and confidence?

- A young mum 


Dear Young Mum,

Your letter took me back in an instant and I laughed and laughed. Oh my word. A few of my children were JUST LIKE YOURS. Questions and chatter all day long. In church, in adult company, at bedtime, first thing in the morning, in the car, unceasingly.

When our oldest, Matthew, was three or four years old I kept track and in one day he asked 118 questions that began with “why?” Not whiny why’s like “Why do I have to take a nap?” but “Why did Uncle Philip hold the baby?” [referring to a photo on the wall] and “Why am I a boy?” There were also plenty of who, what, where, when, and how questions that day, but I counted only the why’s.

We had a guest one day who was helping me in the kitchen. At one point she said, “Don’t you get tired of the interrogation?”

I said, “Interrogation?”

It turned out that I had been answering a stream of Matt's questions with my mouth while I was concentrating on cooking, and I wasn’t even aware of what I was saying.

I’m an introvert, and some days the constant talking nearly drove me off the edge. I would tell myself to be thankful--at least I wasn’t in prison for my faith like Christians in China. But then I’d envy those people in prison, because they had time to THINK.

Our second child was Amy, who thought by thinking instead of talking. She would observe silently for a long time, and then when she opened her mouth, a concise and well-planned sentence came out.

I don’t want to label them better and worse, but I’ll just say that Amy was often a blessed relief.

Our third child was Emily, who began talking enthusiastically the second she got out of bed and kept it up all day. She asked lots of questions too, often hypotheticals like your child’s. “Mom! What if you had NINE children and three of them were trimplets and two of them were spilling cereal and one was unrolling toilet paper and three of them were splashing in the bathtub!? What would you do?? Wouldn’t that be a DISASTROPHE??”

I am happy to say that they all grew up into functional, brilliant, successful adults. They don’t recall feeling squelched.

I was a talkative child as well, since my dad used to say that my sister and I were “glenny Mattie", “little Matties,” [name changed of course], referring to a very talkative person in his past.

However, unfortunately, my memory is mostly of disgusted parents and siblings wanting me to just shut up before I embarrassed them off the face of the earth, and of me not having a clue what was actually appropriate, or why that was a wrong thing to say. There was a constant mix of this urge to say out loud what I saw and thought, a love of any kind of attention, and a deep sense that everything I said was usually wrong somehow. 

I think that’s the key for you and your children. The point is not to silence them or to communicate an exasperated “Will you just shut up??” Instead, they need to be taught what’s appropriate, and when. It will be a relief to both them and you to have those skills in hand.

Here’s some advice:

1.       Teach them that everyone has equal value. I got this from Gary and Anne Marie Ezzo’s teaching, and I want to give credit where it’s due, even though I don’t endorse their child-training courses.
That means you talk to your child about taking up time and space in a conversation. She has things to say, and they neeeeed to be said. But everyone else also has things to say! God made them with thoughts and words too! So you need to give everyone an equal chance to talk.
This also relates to answering for a sibling. No, Michael has his own thoughts and ideas. Aunt Linda asked HIM. We need to wait while he answers.
Show them that conversation is like tossing a ball back and forth. You don't hold the ball in your hands for fifteen minutes straight. You toss it to your sister, who tosses it to your dad, who sends it back to you, then it's your turn to talk again.
Eventually you want to work on asking good questions and listening to the answers.

2.       Teach them to defer to adults. This sort of contradicts the above statement about everyone having equal value, but I feel that respect for elders is a good thing to teach. Let’s say your sister Linda made the effort to come to your house to have coffee and talk with you. If the adult conversation is constantly interrupted and bombarded with chatter from a 4-year-old, the cuteness of it will wear off real fast and Linda will feel disappointed with her investment of time and resources. You need adult relationships, and your children shouldn’t ruin them. But keep in mind:

3.       Try not to put your children in situations they don’t have the maturity to handle. If your daughter doesn’t have the self-control to entertain herself while you catch up with Linda, try to find an alternative. Can you meet Linda at a coffee shop? I used to pay Matt to occupy the younger siblings when my sister came to visit. It’s not fair to a child to punish/shame them for how they behaved in a situation they weren’t taught how to navigate.

4.       Teach your child how to “reach” you. The Ezzos teach the technique of having your child squeeze your hand silently if you’re in the middle of a conversation with someone else. It says, “I need you,” or “I want to say something.” Then you squeeze back, and it means, “I hear you. I’ll be with you soon.” This prevents some of the “Mom. Mom! MOM!!” desperation when you’re on the phone. Just don't make them wait too long before you turn to them and hear what they want to say.

5.       It won’t hurt them to learn that there are times for talking and times to be quiet. Emily reports that when she used to ask me questions in church like, “Does Nancy have a baby in her tummy or is she just fat?” I used to whisper, “Ask me after.” She found it frustrating because she always forgot her question by the time church was over, but she didn’t find it shaming.
Also, it’s ok to use a timer. I would often set a timer for five or ten minutes when I needed to write a note or make a grocery list. They knew they could talk after the timer beeped. We were traveling in the van one day and Matthew was talking non-stop in the front seat. I told him he needs to be quiet for five minutes, just to rest my brain. The five minutes passed and the chatter didn’t resume. How could this be? He had fallen asleep.

6.       Turn the question back to them. This advice is from Emily, who enjoyed it when people did it to her and has often done this with children. Their questions come from the wild, colorful swirling in their heads. If you turn it back to them, it helps to process the chaos into words and ideas. Say, “What do YOU think?” “Why do YOU think Dad went to work today?” “Do YOU think a horse or a helicopter would be better for going to the warehouse?” This puts some of the work of thinking back on them instead of you. That is a good thing.

7.       Don’t frame their talking in terms of bad or good. I feel like I did this with my children, to some degree, as I mentioned, in that Amy was good because she was quieter and didn’t exhaust me so much. Instead, think in terms of skills, kindness, and consideration. A child who always dominates a conversation will be handicapped socially. Teaching them to listen to others will benefit them the rest of their lives.

8.       Teach them to read. Once they can satisfy some of that curiosity on their own, the incessant questions will lessen until you can think at least one or two thoughts of your own in between. In Matt’s case, being able to read changed everything, and he devoured the newspaper, all the encyclopedias, and everything else within reach, resulting in long periods of blessed silence. Those inquisitive minds will be satisfied at last with a river of knowledge that Mom can’t begin to match.

9.       Remember that they will grow up, and they will astonish you. It takes a long time and a lot of work to raise a child and teach appropriate interactions, but it can be done and I’m sure you have what it takes.

I wish you much grace and wisdom for this stage.

--Aunt Dorcas


  1. Thank you! I have got such a child!

    1. You're welcome, and I wish you patience and wisdom!

  2. I talked A LOT when I was a child. My siblings tell me that when the family was in the car my Mom would set a limit after which I had to stop talking. When I was a preschooler my mother also made me go to my bedroom each afternoon until the other children came home from school. When I told her I didn't need a nap, she said, "That may be true, but I need a break". Which didn't make sense to me at the time. I remember her telling me a few times that she was so glad that I wasn't twins. Somehow we both survived and I think I turned out to be somewhat of a normal adult. ~merle

    1. Ok, I find this way too amusing.
      You have accomplished much more than "normal" people do, and maybe that's typical of the talkative/inquisitive children.

  3. Ohhhhh my lanta. I need to come back about once a week and re-read this!! (and not spend too much time mourning the fact that I didn't read it 12 years ago when my motor mouth was born!)

    1. Trust me, I learned a bunch of this long after I needed it most.

  4. I had a child like this. Sometimes when I could no longer stand the incessant chatter, I would cheerfully say, "Ok. My ears are tired and need a break from talking. Let's see if we can have quiet for the next ten minutes." Of course when the ten minutes ended, all the things she had thought of to say during that time would come gushing out, but at least it gave me a few moments to think.

  5. This is just like my 5 year old!!! And I am an introvert also! Hoo boy. I think the pandemic makes it worse because the only people she has to talk to are in this house :/ I do get her to call grandparents and aunts sometimes, because they find her chatter charming because they don't live with her. I appreciate your approach, Dorcas, based in respect and good manners and working with the personality we were born with.

    1. Thanks, Margo, and I think many of us feel with you. We introverts have a lot more people around us than we're used to.

  6. I really appreciate this question and the concern that is behind it to know how to work with a personality in a way that isn't shaming. I was a child just like this. Dominating conversations and getting so much energy out of adult interaction. I definitely needed guidance in managing my personality. Unfortunately, I felt shamed and "too much" and exasperating. Why couldn't I be like my perfect sibling? I'm sure it wasn't meant the way I felt it, but it had some deep effects. I felt "bad" as a child and acted accordingly. I felt insecure and hated myself and was desperate for approval. These psychological patterns have been a struggle for much of my life. I don't have the answers for "how to do it", but I think some good guidance was laid out here. And I think the mother who asked the question already has the key component - an awareness that this is a good personality that God created and has as much strength, value, and potential as any other. The child needs to learn how to manage it in a godly way, just like any other personality. I think one thing that can be very damaging but very easy to do is responding to the child out of your own embarrassment and sort of transmitting that embarrassment or shame onto the child. I think making affirmation an intentional point as much as admonition can go a long way as well. God bless you mothers with patience and wisdom!

    1. Agreed, from someone who was a noisy chatty child with quiet parents! I don't think their exasperation or frustration or need to get away were hurtful at all really, and neither was being told or pleaded with to be quiet, to lay down, to go to a different room. I wish they'd had some of the advice here. For me at least, it was shaming that did damage--times when they were disgusted with me or made me feel awful for things I couldn't help. Parents like the letter writer who care about their kids' feelings probably don't need to worry so very much about hurting them--trying not to lose your own mind is work enough! Just my own thoughts of course.

    2. Anonymous--I deeply relate to your "shamed and too much and exasperating." And I think you're right, that the mom who asked the question already has the key component. Great points here.
      Anon II--I also feel that the shaming did the most damage for me.

  7. And then in time this child leaves home, marries and becomes a parent. Questions like - "can God pick up a train locomotive?" were the norm. Very creative. Today, these question bring a smile... :-) And now I miss it!

    1. That's funny. I miss it now and then, just the entertainment and quotability of it.

  8. Thank you for this. I needed this advice. I try to remember that my 5 year old will soon be 15 and I will want her to talk to me then, so I need to try and engage her in conversation now. I do not have a quiet second child. He can compete with his sister in talking. The problem is I see so much of myself in my daughter. She doesn't ask as many questions as she plans out her activities, her day, everything out loud for me to hear and respond to. It's exhausting and yet, if I'm honest, I'm so glad I don't have laidback children, I love their enthusiasm for life.

  9. I just had to laugh when I read about your children. I only have one child, but he was definitely of the "talks to think" camp. Even now, he's 22, when he comes home for a day or two, I'll hear him in the bathroom talking to himself, working something out in his head. Honestly though, he gets that from me. I also process by talking things out, so I can't really complain. I do wish I'd had some of these suggestions when he was little.

    Once again thank you for your wisdom Aunt Dorcas.

    Shannon Combs

  10. Shirley Wilbers3/15/2021 9:46 PM

    love this !! I was that child! I wanted to know everything.But especially if I felt that you were keeping information from me. WOE be to that person who tried to divert me -one way or another I was going to make sure you answered !! Of course as I got older I discovered that I could get the same info from books which made my mother very happy and relieved ! She resolved that by ensuring we had all kinds of books/magazines available -course her being a writer we had an abundance of magazines that most of my peers in the conservative Mennonite school/church werent allowed to read !! But yeah realizing that I am one of those - got to talk out so I know what I'm thinking " people. Reading this made me realize just how much I exasperated people when I was growing up !!