What toddlers say versus what they really mean

"The thing about toddlers is that what they say isn’t always what they mean. That would be far too easy."
"The thing about toddlers is that what they say isn’t always what they mean. That would be far too easy." Photo: Getty Images

Is there anything more adorable than toddlers learning how to use language? The mixed-up, made-up, back-to-front words: “bubble rice” (rice bubbles), “Auntie D2” (R2-D2), and “gooses” (geese) are just some of the gems my son has come out with recently.

There’s the sweet pronunciation too, and the way the little phrases toddlers choose are a window into the way they view and make sense of the world. How they soak it all up and reflect it back; how funny and candid and unfiltered this can be.

And yet, the thing about toddlers is that what they say isn’t always what they mean. That would be far too easy and they’re complicated little creatures. They like to keep us on our toes.

Here are some commonly encountered phrases and a more accurate translation of them. Please note: while there are some similarities across the language of toddler, there are an enormous number of dialects within said language, and individual differences may apply.

1. “I’m hungry” 

Translation: “I would like something to eat please, but on my terms. Vegetables or anything nutritious need not apply. I’m not that hungry.“

2. “Can I have a turn (on the swing/slippery dip)?” 

Translation: “I don’t really want to have a go that badly, but that little boy is on it and having a great old time, so of course I need to have a turn right now. As soon as he leaves the park I’ll get off and go back to chasing the birds.”

3. “Daddy, can I …?” 


Translation: “I’ve just asked Mummy and she said no, so I thought I’d try my luck with you, big guy. So what do you say – can I have a lollypop for breakfast?”

4. “But I’m not tired!” 

Translation: “I am so tired my eyeballs are about to drop out of their sockets in all their baby blue glory. But do you think I’m going to go to bed? Not on your life. There’s at least another hour (or two) in me yet. Just watch.”

5. “Can you read one more story?” 

Translation:  “By one, I mean at least three. And don’t think you’re getting out of it by choosing a lift-the-flap, five-words-a-page book like Spot; I’m talking The Gruffalo, or Green Eggs and Ham. Cover to cover. Oh, and no skipping pages. I know those books off by heart. You want to encourage my interest in reading, don’t you?”

6. (Insert obscenity overheard from parent) 

Translation: “I have no idea what this word means, but whenever I say it, the reaction is classic. Especially from Daddy, who pretends not to laugh while Mummy shoots him The Look. I’ve had The Look too. It’s not pretty.”

7. Silence. 

Translation: Silence rarely means “I am happily engaged in an age-appropriate educational activity and thoroughly enjoying entertaining myself.” Oh no. A more accurate translation of silence (a sound that elicits a special kind of fear in parents of toddlers) is: “I am currently doing something I am not supposed to be doing. At any moment, you will become suspicious, discover me and restrict my artistic freedom, so, I am living in the moment and going to town on this freshly painted wall/packet of flour/pile of washing/box of baby wipes/ jar of Nutella.”  

8. “No”  

Translation: Actually, this one’s pretty clear. No = Hell to the no. Not a chance. Good luck with that. Tell ‘em they’re dreaming. Toddlers are also pretty advanced when it comes to using body language: tantrums, tears and fantastic facial expressions, also clearly and effectively conveying this message where words fail. No translation required.

What else would you add to the list? What are you favourite toddler words?