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Why Do We Refer to Ourselves in the Third Person When We Talk to Our Kids?

I often speak to my two- and three-year-old in the third person, as if their presence transforms me into Jimmy from “Seinfeld.” Jimmy’s penchant for calling himself by his first name causes confusion and laughs for the characters on the show.

My habit isn’t triggering any laugh tracks in real life, but it’s a curious thing to do, and I know I’m not the only parent who does it. On any given day, you might hear me say, “Hang on, sweetie. Mommy will get it for you,” or, “Sit down. Mommy will put on your shoes.”

Why? The habit of referring to one’s self by name, instead of saying “I” or “me” is called illeism, and some famous people, like Bob Dole and LeBron James, are known for speaking this way in public. But many more of us just seem to do it around our babies and toddlers. I dug around for formal studies to explain the phenomenon, but came up empty handed.

I did find the question posted in several chat forums, though. While a few people took the opportunity to express their annoyance with this parenting quirk, one logical reason surfaced:  language acquisition. Until they’re two or three years old, pronouns are really confusing for children. It’s why some kids actually refer to themselves in the third person while they parse out the mechanics of language (just like Elmo from “Sesame Street”).

Using stable nouns like “Mommy” and “Daddy” help children follow the back and forth of conversation more easily than transferrable pronouns like “I,” “you,” and “me,” but how do we know to do this around our kids? After having my daughter, I read a lot of “what to expect” articles, and while they often encouraged parents to talk to our babies to support their cognitive and language development, I don’t remember them coaching us to speak in the third person, like Seinfeld’s Jimmy.

Maybe it’s instinctive

Perhaps we just know that we should simplify our speech around children who are learning our language. On the other hand, we don’t start speaking in the third person when we meet a person who isn’t fluent in English, so what is it about our kids that makes us talk this way?

Pet owners sometimes turn to illeism with their animals, but their goal certainly isn’t to teach their pets proper pronouns usage. Maybe the practice just comes from a place of love, but, I love my husband and my family, and I don’t talk this way with them either.

Maybe it’s a learned behavior

If our parents spoke like this to us, then we may model the same conversation style to our children. That’s true for me. My mother and father turned on the Jimmy talk with my brothers and me when we were young, and they do it now with their grandkids. But my husband actually doesn’t speak in the third person to our children, even though his parents do.

Plus, a study found that, even if we’re prone to Jimmy talk, parents use the pronouns “you,” “I,” “we,” and “me” significantly more than we say “Mommy” or “Daddy” when speaking directly to our kids. In fact, we say “I” almost 17 times more often than we say “Mommy.”

Maybe it’s situational

Some of us must be subconsciously compelled to refer to ourselves in the third person at certain times, and I have a theory on when we’re more likely to do it. Parents call themselves “Mommy” or “Daddy” when we’re stressed by something our kids are doing, or when we’re serving them in some way.

In times of stress

When we’re stressed, we may speak in the third person to assert our dominance over the situation. We tend to assume that when a person refers to themselves by name, they’re egotistical. Yet sometimes people use this style of speech as a coping mechanism. When they’ve taken on some kind of bigger role in their lives, illeism helps them adjust (think Bob Dole running for president). Speaking in the third person “enlarges us to fit in that role.”

I can think of no bigger role to fill than that of a parent, so maybe we start referring to ourselves in the third person around our kids to feel in control of the novel situations we encounter (“Shhh, Mommy’s here, you don’t need to cry,”), or when we want “to indicate that the topic is not open for debate.” (“Don’t climb on the counter! Mommy will get you the snack.”)

Taking this idea one step further, maybe we consider conversing with our kids as a kind of self talk, the practice of talking to yourself. Ethan Kross, a psychologist who studies self-talk noticed that people who refer to themselves by name in their internal dialogues managed their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors during stressful times better than those who referred to themselves as “I.”

It’s normal to think of our kids as an extension of ourselves, especially when they’re very young and need constant care and attention. We think nothing of cleaning schmutz off their face by licking our finger or wiping a booger out of their nose — so it makes sense that in tense situations with our little appendages, our illeism shows itself to diffuse our stress. (“Mommy needs five minutes to herself. Stop banging on the bathroom door.”)

In times of servitude

Historically, speaking in the third person implied humility (“Your servant awaits your orders”), so when we’re caring for our kids, we might be implying the same kind of thing. (“Mommy will get you a bottle.”)

We may also channel our inner Jimmy when we lose a sense of ourselves with our kids. I’ve read enough blog articles reminding me to make time for myself to know that it’s easy and all too common to let our role of mom or dad take over our lives. So maybe the frequency of our illeism can give us a clue as to how deep in the weeds of tending to our little ones we really are.

Maybe it’s all of the above

No matter the reason I do it, I plan to continue referring to myself as “Mommy” when I speak to my kids and trust that the habit will naturally fade away over time. There’s no harm in it. If anything, speaking this way helps our kids understand us better.

I’m still curious about this particular form of speech, though, because it seems to be unique to parents. Is it more common to speak this way or not? Do women do it more than men? Do men and women do it for different reasons? Is it a cultural thing? Do pet owners speak this way to their animals even after they’ve had kids?

Refer to yourselves in the third person whenever you please, but let me know in the comments when and why you think you do it. Maybe together we can figure out once and for all just why turning into parents also turns us into Jimmy.

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Ah, back to school time. The excitement of a new year for our kids and the impossibly busy schedule for their mamas. Anyone else get to the end of the day and think, "What did I even DOOO today, and why am I so exhausted?" 🙋

Luckily, finding a system to help you plan out your days can help reduce stress and improve your overall quality of life—which we are all for.

Here are eight planners we love that'll quickly take you from "What is happening?!" to "Look what I did!"

1. Day Designer

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New research published in the journal Biology Letters suggests the pitch of a 4-month-old's cry predicts the pitch they'll use to ask for more cookies at age five and maybe even later on as adults.

The study saw 2 to 5-month olds recorded while crying. Five years later, the researchers hit record again and chatted with the now speaking children. Their findings, combined with previous work on the subject, suggest it's possible to figure out what a baby's voice will sound like later in life, and that the pitch of our adult voices may be traceable back to the time we spend in utero. Further studies are needed, but scientists are very interested in how factors before birth can impact decades later.

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The New York Times also spoke with Carolyn Hodges, an assistant professor of anthropology at Boston University who was not involved in the study. According to Hodges, while voice pitch may not seem like a big deal, it impacts how we perceive people in very real ways.

Voice pitch is a factor in how attractive we think people are, how trustworthy. But why we find certain pitches more or less appealing isn't known. "There aren't many studies that address these questions, so that makes this research especially intriguing," Hodges said, adding that it "suggests that individual differences in voice pitch may have their origins very, very early in development."

So the pitch of that midnight cry may have been determined months ago, and it may determine part of your child's future, too. There are still so many things we don't know, but as parents we do know one thing: Our babies cries (as much as we don't want to hear them all the time) really are something special.

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"It's miserable," Bell recently told POPSUGAR. "It's awful no matter who's doing what. And I'll tell you right now, the 3- and 5-year-old aren't doing jack."

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Check out these Pinterest perfect make-ahead morning meals, like breakfast enchiladas or egg muffins, and make mornings a bit easier on yourself, mama.

3. Bring some Montessori into your mornings

Help your kids take control of their AM destiny by bringing some limited choices (like clothing) into the morning routine and allowing for natural consequences (like having to settle for an apple in the van because they missed breakfast) but also allowing for fun with mom.

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It was a year ago when I was pregnant, parenting a highly-spirited preschooler and also working a full-time job while trying to maintain a part-time side business when I got to the point of I have had enough.

I can't remember exactly what the trigger was, but like most times, it wasn't just one thing but a build-up over time that culminates in a massive meltdown.

You see, I was not getting much appreciation or validation for all of my contributions. This was a time when my partner, too, was working full-time and in graduate school two evenings a week. It was stressful for everyone, but, as the wife and mother, I carried the family through it by tending to the little details: the pick-up and drop-offs, the shopping, the cooking, all the minutiae of everyday life.

So, after perseverating on my laundry list of seen and unseen responsibilities, I decided to sit down with pen and paper and make a "day in the life" list from wake-up to bedtime that showed my partner exactly what my day entailed—a day that supported two other people in the house and one in the oven.

Even I was surprised to see all of the things listed out in 15-minute increments. On paper, it actually looked even worse than it felt. I thought to myself about how much physical, mental and emotional energy I expend in this hectic season of our lives. And I didn't regret it for a minute.

However, back to my original complaint…I still wanted to be validated for it. I needed to be seen for both the implicit and explicit tasks and expectations in my day-to-day.

So I handed my list over to my husband, expecting him to be awakened to the fact I was indeed working in overdrive and for him to be grateful for all the ways that I take so many burdens off of him so that he can be successful in school and his career.

Instead of that, his response almost put me into a state of shock. He read over the list and then said, "I know. You are Superwoman."

His words, like kryptonite, left me speechless. Part of me knew that his intent was for this to be a compliment, but it felt so invalidating. It completely missed the mark, and instead of leaving me feeling appreciated, I felt less understood.

Superheroes have innate superpowers that I imagine they use with ease. In fact, they are expected to use their powers and perhaps that is their sole purpose. No one ever looks to a superhero and asks, "Do you need a break?" And as a feminist, I sure as heck believe women are strong and powerful. But the idea of being labeled a "superwoman" did not feel empowering.

I already know I am efficient, capable, strong and fierce. But, I am also fatigued, sometimes overworked and underappreciated, and worst of all expected to be the one that keeps it together for everyone else.

What I learned about through my research of who Superwoman really is was this: her powers always wear off by the end of the story. Turns out these so-called "superpowers" really are temporary. That I can relate to.

I am only human and there are days and weeks where I feel on top of the world, days where I can manage it all with ease. I can be up all night nursing a baby, take both kids to school, and show up on time for a 9:00 am meeting with a French pastry I baked from scratch. I can push through the exhaustion and demands every day…until I can't.

And it's not just my spouse who uses this label. I have well-meaning girlfriends who have also tossed the term out there as if it was meant to be a feather in my cap.

When things get tough, I appreciate the texts of support my girlfriends send me. Even when they are far away, it's nice to know someone cares when everyone in your house has the stomach flu while your partner is out of the country. It's comforting to be able to share the ups and downs of trying to balance a career with a growing family.

But when the text comes in and says something like, "I don't know how you do all that. You are a supermom!" I feel like there should be an auto-reply that says, "Connection lost."

The thing is, I don't want to be elevated to superhero status for living my life. It is not heroic and it's probably not too far off from what every other devoted partner and mother provides their family. But, this is what I think we need, what we are starving for. We need someone to say, "How are you doing?" or, "What have you done lately to care for yourself?" or, "Thank you for all that you do and who you are."

Those are the kinds of words that let me know I am seen and make me feel validated when I am working the hardest. They let me know that the people I love the most see me, and not a cape.

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