Why, Why, Why Does My Toddler Repeat Herself So Much?

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Photo: Sue Barr/Getty Images/Image Source

My 2-and-a-half-year-old daughter is at an age where I can never predict what will come out of her mouth next. Eve attends preschool all day, five days a week, and often comes home repeating phrases or songs (or fragments of them) for which I have little to no context. So far, every unfamiliar utterance has been completely innocuous, but it’s still jarring to be reminded that she’s developing into a person with independent thoughts, proclivities, and daily stimuli. However sentimental my initial reaction, though, those feelings usually disappear by the time she repeats some new sentence for the third time. The fourth. The fifth … the sixth.

“I’m a Super Reader! I go to fly the plane!” Eve said one evening at home about two months ago, her tiny voice declaring her new identity as a Super Reader, making sure I knew she was on her way to pilot an aircraft. I had no frame of reference for what she was trying to communicate to me as I toiled over the hot oven and stove, pausing every two minutes to shoo her out of the kitchen so she wouldn’t zoom into any scalding surfaces. She ignored the television I’d guiltily switched on in favor of careening around the apartment shouting the same phrases over and over, until she decided I was not responding with enough enthusiasm, and planted herself right outside of the kitchen — far enough away that I couldn’t kick her out, just close enough to drive me completely out of my mind.

“I’m a Super Reader!” she insisted.

“You’re a Super Reader?”

“I go to fly the plane!”

“Awesome, go and fly the plane!” Please. After the tenth or eleventh repetition, I abruptly stopped what I was doing to kneel down and peer into her face, now half-afraid she was experiencing some massive cognitive breakdown and I had been too zoned out to notice. She watched me warily, somewhat amused, but didn’t appear to be in any sort of physiological distress. “I’m good,” she said. Then: “I’m a Super Reader! I go to fly the plane!”

Thankfully, she doesn’t always repeat phrases quite to this extent each time, but I would be lying if I pretended these occurrences weren’t … annoying. She is my precious child, and it’s a joy to see her happy, but let’s be honest: There is never a time that I am in the mood to be told the same exact thing five, six, seven times in succession, with no end in sight. Of course, like most irritations inherent to her age, I grit my teeth and deal with it, out of amused resignation. Because it’s simply a phase that’s not only inevitable, but signals her continuing development.

For a tiny human constantly soaking up stimuli and learning to translate it into speech, my daughter’s behavior is completely typical. I spoke to Julie Wright, co-author with Heather Turgeon of Now Say This: The Right  Words to Solve Every Parenting Dilemma, about this particular behavior, and the best way to respond to it. “They do it to take in information and learn new language; repetition is how they study everything, just the way we do something new and complex, like ballet or the violin,” Wright told me. The same way my daughter learned how to put on her shoes and use a fork through repeated attempts, she consolidates her budding vocabulary, grammar, and syntax by trying out strange words and phrases until they become trusted, familiar.

“Toddlers are trying to imitate us because they want to be included in the conversation,” Wright added. “They are practicing their social language skills.” This developmental phase can definitely be wearing — like when she tosses a carrot onto the ground for the third time, glancing at me with a smirk to see how I’ll react — but knowing that I can ascribe her antics to an evolutionary mandate that seeks consistency in responses grants me a bit more patience. A bit.

When I asked Wright how I should respond to these spells, her answer wasn’t surprising: Don’t rush to make it stop. “Wonder about the underlying reasons she’s repeating and start by attuning to those,” she reasoned. “Listen carefully, ask questions, be interested and help her expand her understanding.” So much of parenting is playing a role, of course: the role of chef who naturally cooks well-balanced meals all the time, the role of avid listener at school recitals, of unofficial soccer coach at the neighborhood park. Entrusted with tiny little lives, we mold ourselves into a person who may not come quite naturally, but with practice, in time, these parts we’ve been assigned become a bit easier. They begin to feel less forced.

If there’s anything I’ve learned during the past few months of this current repetition phase, it’s the futility of phoning it in. Distracted, one-word responses are not only frustrating and dismissive, they also just further communicate that Mommy didn’t hear what I said, so I need to say it again. Now, I try to make a conscious effort to listen to what she’s telling me as if I’ve never heard it before — and rather than leave her an opening to repeat herself, I steer the conversation in a direction that challenges her to answer questions. An opportunity for learning, and a distraction from yet another repetition.

Of course, there’s another reason why listening to her is so important: comprehension. Sure, there are times I’m still unable to parse what she’s saying, either because she can’t fully enunciate, or I’m mishearing her, or both. But there’s no excuse for not trying. Just a few weeks ago, I plopped her onto her potty and it took me several tries to understand what it was she was trying to tell me. She was, it turned out, not informing me of a “prophecy,” but demanding that I leave the bathroom so she could have “privacy.” A humbling moment for a number of reasons, and without a doubt, one of my proudest to date.

The same way I can only vaguely remember the phase before this one (when did she stop trying to eat bubbles?), by fall I’m sure there will be a completely new set of behaviors to contend with, to frantically Google when my nerves and patience are frayed. Until then, I’ll do my best to continue giving her the verbal affirmation she needs and deserves. When she’s hopping toward me, eager to share another peek into her riotous little mind, I’ll try my best to be all ears, from the very first telling to the eleventh.

Why, Why, Why Does My Toddler Repeat Herself So Much?