Parentese: a Primer

Did you know I'm bilingual? That's right. I have two languages in my vast verbal repertoire. (Marvel at my mad linguistic skillz.) There's English, which is my native tongue ... and then there's a language that I picked up a few years ago.

I call it Parentese.

Parentese is actually a common form of communication, and can be found in most households with children, though the dialects vary from family to family. It is used when one parent is talking to another and becomes second nature after a while.

One particular form of Parentese includes lots of spelling, which is handy for a.) avoiding embarrassing questions, and b.) withholding information from children.*

Example A: "Did you remember to hide the c-o-n-d-o-m-s?"

Example B: "As soon as the kids n-a-p, I'm going to eat the last of their c-a-n-d-y."

The spelling aspect comes in handy during the holiday season, such as when you're in a store and see a gift idea but the kids are within earshot: "Did you see that little pack of c-a-r-s? It would be a perfect gift from S-a-n-t-a."

*Note: this form only works with small children. Never use it around a kid who is even close to school-aged, even if you're not sure they can spell, lest something like this happen.

Speakers of Parentese are highly intuitive to their fellow speakers, especially those with whom they use the language most: their co-parent. Vague gestures sometimes replace entire words, yet the co-parent naturally understands. This is useful for situations where mentioning a word out loud would almost certainly cause demands and/or pandemonium.

Example: "Did you bring the pacifier?" becomes, "Did you bring the ..." accompanied by a nonspecific gesture in the general mouth area. Subsequently, "Of course I did, it's only like the most important tool in our shutting-up-the-baby arsenal, I would never forget it, it's in the front pocket of the bag where it always is, duh," becomes, "Yep," perhaps accompanied by a nod.

Alternately, there's communication through implication: "Did you get you-know-who's you-know-what?" This is found most commonly among advanced speakers of the language, especially those with multiple children, and can be difficult for an outsider to decipher.

Parentese also includes lots of nonverbal communication cues, such as ...

-The "Don't say it!" eye-widen
-The nearly-imperceptible head shake
-The "Did the baby just say a bad word?" sideways glance
-The disapproving lip-purse
-The extra-loud throat clear

If you're unfamiliar with Parentese, and worry that you won't be able to pick it up, take heart: it comes naturally. That's why you don't see any Parentese-English (Spanish, German, French, whatever) dictionaries, and no one ever says, "I'm taking Parentese lessons."

Life is your Parentese lesson. You'll learn soon enough.


  1. I too speak fluent parent-ese. Unfortunately, I think my 4 year old has been taking secret lessons...she is picking up on ALL sorts of codes!

  2. My Parent-ese is poor. Like Theresa my girl has deciphered most of it.

  3. Yes! I do the spelling thing or the insinuation thing only to have my husband yell out the answer. Poor thing thought it was a competition.

  4. Oh yes, I can testify that Italian/Parentese is the same, weird?

  5. this is a VERY IMPORTANT SKILL SET to have. very.

  6. Love it! So true. It is sad that the day is near when we can no longer spell infront of my 4 year old! I can't get away with much anymore. However, at least I still have my 2 and 3 year old to practice on! I'll just have to duct tape the 4 year old's mouth problem!

  7. I miss the days of Parentese - I was so fluent and rarely get to speak the language anymore. It was such a useful skill set!! It was especially fun breaking in Alpha Hubby when we married. I got a lot of "huh"?

  8. I loved this entry! This is the stuff that made me fall in love with your writing! Bravo!

  9. You crack me up!! I used it this weekend at my parents to asked my husband if he knew where the babys p-a-s-s-y is. to which he said..."You want me to do what to your p-u-s-s-y baby? My parents loved that.

  10. This post was very true and very F U N N Y - having children in their early 20's I have not used the Parentese in a very long time, however you never forget. Now we use it on the dog...can you get the dog a T R E A T - do you think we should take her for a "W" - yes professionals can use one letter and the pet owner understands.

  11. We already speak Parentese. And, we don't even have kids. We have to spell out B-E-D and T-R-E-A-T and O-U-T. It's scary that we have to spell in front of our dogs. And, I'm pretty sure Franco is catching on to B-E-D. I can't imagine kids. They have to be at least half as smart as the pugs. ;)

  12. And, PS - I want to spell out condom. I want to figure out a reason to use it on the pugs.

  13. When you were about four, I said to your older brother, "She's been really n-a-u-g-h-t-y today for some reason." You indignantly answered, "I have NOT been naughty!" End of spelling things around you......LOL

  14. I used to speak Parantese very well, then my boys grew up! Funny post.

  15. I speak this language also. It usually involves me or my wife signalling that we want a drink as our kids cling to our legs and wail about the fact that they wanted to wear the blue shirt, not the light blue shirt.

  16. LOL!!! LOVE it! We have our fourth kid on the way - so we are VERY fluent in parentese, which, IMO, is a very fast-paced, ever changing language and can be adapted over months and years to suit many levels of needs! lol. Our 6 year old is starting to get good at spelling some words so we've taken to making up new code words for things, for instance. The children may someday be VERY confused, but I like to think we're really protecting their innocence for now! ha ha ha!


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