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In Defense of Using Big Words With Little Kids

Gina sent this to me, because she knows this is something I believe is important. I’m a “big” advocate of using big words around kids. Obviously, there are some qualifiers to be explored. But overall, I believe parents generally don’t use enough mysterious (to them for the moment), meaningful (growing) language with children. Of course explain as you go, to be sure, but don’t shy away from using more and more elaborate language. It’s how we all learn. Kids are just way more capable than most humans to absorb it.

I think this goes for Theological/Biblical language as well. Explain UP, don’t DUMB DOWN. (I understand the need for clarity. But we need a clarity that serves people for life, not only for the moment.) We are aiming to build up understanding, not reduce the deeply meaningful, mysterious, magical wonder of Holy Scripture to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Note: This is not an elitist position, or a stuck-up thing. It’s just about giving children more. Not more money, prestige, or high status. It’s about equipping them, endowing them, blessing them with an amazing and priceless gift. I know that writers ought to most often use the clearest, most common words, but I think that’s a bit of a different discussion.

We want our own children to have a deeper capacity. It doesn’t need to always issue in using all those words all the time. We want to expand their arsenal, not really recommend that they use the grenade launcher all the time. We just want them to have more than a squirt gun. Though often a squirt gun is called for.

Here’s an excerpt from the article by Amanda Morgan:

Don’t shy away from the big words. It is very common for adults to simplify their language when talking to young children. Instead of referring to the veterinarian, we talk about the “animal doctor”. While a sentence full of new words would be a bit overwhelming for anyone, throwing in a new word now and then is a great opportunity to build vocabulary! If we are referring to the veterinarian, we should use that word, offering “animal doctor” as an explanation, and then referring to “veterinarian” a few more times in the conversation. If you’re explaining what something is, you might as well use the right word the first time. Children may not always pick up on those big words, but they certainly won’t if they don’t ever hear them. There isn’t much opportunity for growth if we’re always using words they already know. So go ahead, use words like “identical” instead of “same” and “metamorphosis” instead of “change”. You’ll be surprised at what your children will pick up on when you give them the chance!


  1. Yay. Love this… This is one of the main reasons that I absolutely love Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events” books. He is constantly using big words. And then, he defines them. Never in a pedantic kind of way, but always very natural.

  2. Most excellent.

    I was watching a Harry Potter documentary last night and my son (who turned 2 in April) was sitting next to me, still recovering from being sick the last few days. The documentary was talking about the various creatures in Harry Potter and how they brought them to life for the movies. He kept asking me, “What’s that Daddy!?” I would tell him and he would repeat it, smiling. Centaur. House Elf. Thestral. He loves hearing new words and trying them out, usually smiling when he tries. He gets them right most of the time. But sometimes his version is cuter (can you guess what adadillo is?)

    And I love that he knows what a dragon is (and makes me be one so he can on my back, al la How to Train Your Dragon). And “abracadabra” is what some magicians use for magic tricks. Thanks to Kipper for that one.

  3. I agree as well. It’s just another way we show children dignity and respect, something we’ve tried to base our parenting on. I remember explaining the term “ambivalent” to my three year old when she was struggling to give up her thumb-sucking habit. She wanted to, to be a “big girl,” and yet the comfort of her thumb was so tempting. Naming things always helps and validates.

  4. Preach it! We have always used big words with our daughter, and adults are often surprised to hear the large words that come out of her mouth. I think they instantly give her more credit.

    this brings to mind one of my frustrations, and that is that too many adults don’t want to expand their vocabulary (which is, of course about so much more than just words) – or at least that’s true for most of the adults in my world. Like you, I don’t mean for that to sound elitest or snobby. New words give us new constructs and new ways to think, and that means learning and growing, but I think lots of people just see new words as “weird,” and lots of people don’t seem to care about learning.

    Perhaps that applies more to theology than anything else. I work for a church, and I see too many people who just want to feel something, but don’t care to learn more about God, and who fall asleep if you utter the word “theology.”

    I’ll stop ranting now. But anyway, AMEN.

  5. I throw my hat in with the hearty agreements. I love seeing the look on the eyes of my kids when their mind is blown apart with the understanding of a new “big” word. As a fan of Calvin & Hobbes in my formative years I thought it would be cool to actually hear a six year old talk like that. Now that I have a six year old it’s a blast when he busts out a sentence that would make Bill Watterson proud.

    I still remember the day our toilet stopped working. I told my boy we had a conundrum. Anytime he heard someone having toilet problems he said they had a conundrum. It worked, even if he only tied the word to “problems with toilets.”

  6. I have used “big words” with my kids since they were babies. They’re six and seven now, and there is nothing more satisfying to me than when I hear my kids using big words — correctly!

  7. This is why, even if you don’t go around spouting “big words” regularly, reading to your kids is so important. They’re hearing those “big words” in context, absorbing their meanings without really knowing they’re learning. I don’t like to brag, but when I compare the way my kids talk to the way their same-age cousins talk . . . gosh, I’m proud of them!

    Oh, who am I kidding — I love bragging about my kids! 🙂

  8. Thanks for all the great comments. I was a little worried about failing to communicate what I meant. But you guys reassure me.

    You guys are so thoughtful.

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