I speak to my children in the third person. “Daddy would love to read that same story for the fifth time,” I say. “But if he daddy does that he will lose what’s left of his mind.” My wife does the same. Our parents did the same before us. Nobody told us to adopt illeism—the fancy term for referring to oneself in the third person—and neither of us was prone to self-talk before we had kids. We are not Bob Dole. But it’s something we do and we’re far from alone.
But why does Daddy reflexively do this? What biological or psychological imperative drives Daddy to speak in this ridiculous manner? The answer is complicated and largely unresolved.
One simple reason parents default to the third person when speaking with young children may be to help them learn language skills. Studies show that kids naturally refer to themselves in the third person during the early days of language acquisition because pronouns are less predictable than so-called stable nouns. The meaning of “you” changes. The meaning of “Mommy” does not. The path of noun evolving into a pronoun can be tricky for little ears to follow. Sticking to a stable noun works — even when it makes parents sound ridiculous.
But that’s speculation. Concrete studies on the subject of illeism are hard to come by and none directly attempt to explain the phenomenon of parents who self-talk to their children.
Fortunately, one 2014 paper tangentially addresses the question. Ethan Kross, who examines self-talk at the University of Michigan, concluded while studying pronoun use (or lack thereof) among anxious people, that speaking in the third person conveys confidence and helps people deal with stressful situations. Kross found that when he asked even non-stressed study participants to speak in the third person, they consistently spoke with more confidence than those who were instructed to speak in the first person.
In 2017, Kross and colleagues confirmed this suspicion with fMRI brain scans demonstrating the manner in which people exert cognitive control over their emotions when speaking in the third person.
This might work because illeism “enhances people’s tendency to imagine how they appear from the perspective of the audience evaluating them,” as Kross wrote in 2014. Parents may slip into the third person as an act of self-distancing—increasing the psychological distance from their own self-centered perspective, allowing them to detach themselves from emotional situations and cope with stress and anger. Put differently, illeism may be a means of coping with the stress of parenting or shielding children from parental insecurity. Either way, it seems to help parents sound confident, which is something children respond to well.
Self-talk, then, is natural and healthy for overworked parents and likely helpful for small children who are trying to get the hang of pronouns. But can it be harmful? Perhaps, writes Nick Luxmoore of King Alfred’s College in the U.K. “Talking to a small child in the third person may be…a way of encouraging James to start telling a story about himself and other people, a way of developing a narrative sense of himself,” he writes in Psychology Today. “But I wonder whether it also subtly speeds up his sense of separateness. Independence and autonomy might be appropriate aims for all children eventually, but when children become independent too soon….”
Illeism may be a double-edged sword. Even as it gives parents confidence and poise, helping them collect their thoughts and feelings just as they’re about to lose their cool, it may also encourage children to think of themselves as individuals rather than as the nexus of relationships. And that may not be totally healthy for them. Also, it’s annoying.
The best solution may be to deploy self-talk strategically. Use it when you feel stressed or to help your children learn to speak. Otherwise, stive to talk normally. Because however tired Daddy may be of reading the same book over and over again, he doesn’t want his children to grow up too fast.