Stop Focusing So Much on the First Word. Focus on the First Sentence

Thoughts are a lot more interesting than mimicry.

My daughter’s first word implied almost an entire paragraph.

She said “hat” while we were in the young girls department of a suburban Target. As my wife and I discerned after the shock of hearing her voice a word wore off, the single syllable utterance meant “I want to direct your attention to the hat on the shelf behind you. I like the hat and want to wear it now and bring it home.”  We bought the hat and she wore it every day for months.

By the time my daughter said her first sentence, I’d stopped paying close attention. I’m not alone. Parents tend to place a lot of weight on the first word and not very much on full sentences. But I think the first sentence is often more powerful than the first word. First words are those that are parroted back or vague noises that sound like words. A kid’s first sentence is their first fully formed thought — and it should be a bigger milestone.

I’m not the only dad on the block who let my child’s first sentence pass by without notice. This past weekend, I put this question to a group of parents from my neighborhood. While they all knew their kids’ first words, none recalled first sentences.

It was far from a scientific survey, sure. But judging from that sample group and the responses from other parents I later reached out to, it seems reasonable to assume most parents don’t record their kids’ first sentences. Aaron Bennett, a father of two who lives in Massachusetts, told me he was too busy being a dad to record either of his kids’ first spoken thought, and I think his experience rings true for many parents.

“I had a newborn baby when my oldest son was starting to speak in sentences, and a toddler when my youngest was starting to speak,” Bennett said. “It’s all a blur.”

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Kids develop their language skills at different rates but generally say their first word at around 12 months, build up a vocabulary of about eight to 10 words by 18 months and start speaking in sentences at around 24 months. (Quick note to anxious parents: I’m using the word “generally” here for a reason. Kids develop at different rates. Generally doesn’t mean the same as normal; don’t worry if your kid is a little off this rough schedule).

As kids learn to speak, they also learn how to listen. Between 12 and 18 months, they begin making sense of words they hear. They start to recognize names and common words and respond to simple instructions.

Generally, at around 24 months, kids utter their first sentences in the form of questions. A lot of questions. So many questions that being around them becomes a Sisyphean test of your patience with answering questions about topics like why you’re wearing one shirt over another?, why grandma lives in a different house?, and where the blue truck drove to?.  And while it can be supremely annoying, it’s evidence of your kid’s curiosity about the world and their ability to process information.

Their first statement happens around the same time as they start asking all these questions. That doesn’t seem like a coincidence. They’re learning about the world around them. What they have to say could be simple but it could also hint at some larger importance. That’s a nice milestone. And much better than parroting back dada.

In a telling example, one kid’s first sentence illustrated how she views her world and their place in it. Connecticut mom of two Stacy Nelson distinctly remembers her daughter Lucy’s first sentence because it offered a  glimpse into a sibling rivalry that would be a defining characteristic of her kids’ lives. With her first sentence, Lucy, the younger sister, asked what her older sister Ava was doing. As Nelson recounted, the two-year-old girl’s sentence’s actual phonetic sound was “wha Ava doin?.”

“It’s an incredibly strong memory for me because it encapsulates what it’s like for a younger sister to look at her older and always be in a mode of catch-up,” Stacy said. “That dynamic figures prominently in any close-in-age sibling relationship and we continue to cope with ‘wha Ava doin?’ and now some of ‘what’s Lucy doing?’ as well.”

Not every first sentence is a distant early warning about sibling rivalry, of course. A first statement could express a child’s devotion to and need for a parent. That was the case for Vermont mom of one Dawn Fancher, whose kid’s first sentence was “I want mama.” In other cases, the sentence could just be charming and funny, like this baby on YouTube asking “so, what’s up babe?”

So, pay better attention for that first sentence if you can. It’s nice to remember because it allows you to keep track of your child’s understanding of the world. And it definitely means more than “dada”, though that’s nice too. For the first time in their lives, children believe they have something important to say. We don’t lose anything by listening.