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

by Rebecca Lang January 10, 2017

son sitting on mother lap watching cartoons on tablet

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.


Rebecca Lang


Also in Conversations

From Tired Mom to Expert Sleep Consultant
From Tired Mom to Expert Sleep Consultant

by Sarah Bossio

I am humbled to say that I created my dream job. I wake up every morning, after a full night’s rest, ready to support other parents and help their family sleep.

Continue Reading

Disney Seven Dwarfs Doll Set
How Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Helped Me Potty Train My Kids

by ParentCo.

The goal of potty training seems insurmountable, until you introduce a little plastic bribery.

Continue Reading

Mother and kid is enjoying their moment in a pool
How to Use Your Philosophy on Life to Pick Swim Lessons

by ParentCo.

Maybe there's something to using your philosophical approach to life as a means to teach swimming. These five types of lessons might follow your groove.

Continue Reading