Why Middle-School Girls Sometimes Talk Like Babies

By Jessica Lahey

Teachers are technically hired to teach content—math, science, English, history. But over the course of a normal school day, we teach so much more. I’ve enforced dress codes because I want my students to value their brains over their body parts. I’ve made spelling count because ideas presented sloppily are less likely to be heard. I teach about temperance, justice, prudence, and fortitude in order to strengthen my students’ hearts as well as their minds. And when I hear my female students adopting a high-pitched, cutesy baby voice or turning their statements into questions with “upspeak,” I take the time to teach them how to find their voices of authority.

For years, I ignored the habit of baby voice and upspeak because while it is irksome, I was grateful my students were speaking up in class at all. I appreciate how hard it can be for some kids to open their mouths in class and risk embarrassment, so I did not want to do anything to instill more self-doubt or dampen their enthusiasm for my class. (Besides, baby voice works on some people. One male college professor I spoke with admitted that when a female student uses baby talk, “I fall for it like a ton of bricks.” He added: “It does make me softer and more merciful, more likely to expend extra energy to help, and so on.”)

I tried to look past the habit, hoping it, like most trends, would pass into history. But after a few years of listening to girls make smart and insightful points with tentative, childish voices, I felt compelled to intervene. I became even more concerned when I realized that the trend could be interpreted as something more sinister than mere vocal affectation. “Sexy baby voice,” or SBV, was showing up in television and films as an instrument of sexual manipulation, a way of exploiting our culture’s fetish for adult sexuality wrapped in adolescent packages. Grantland posited that SBV “portrays the speaker as a submissive 12-year-old trying to be a sex object.” Tina Fey mocked it in an episode of 30 Rock. Actress and director Lake Bell launched her own takedown of SBV while promoting her film In a World.

If women want to pass themselves off as pubescent in order to attract sexual attention, fine, that’s their adult business. But when the trend spills over to real 12-year-olds, who may or may not understand what the world hears and imagines behind that baby voice, I feel obligated to help them move toward a more mature means of communication that does not sacrifice content to its delivery. In an interview with the Washington Post, Bell explained, “I think what I find most unfortunate about it is that it’s diminutive, it’s sort of diminishing. And it’s a dialect. It’s not even justified by, ‘Oh, she was born with that.’ It’s learned.”

Some, including Jessica Grose at Slate, felt that Lake Bell was unfairly “dissing women’s voices,” that “women who are smaller may have narrower vocal folds, which will lead to a higher pitch.” However, when I consider whether my students are expressing themselves with confidence, I’m not looking for pitch. Middle school girls often have very high-pitched voices that may or may not develop into a deeper chest voice with time. I’m looking for the more subtle lilt, tone, and retreat from authority delivered via that high-pitched voice. Most of all, I’m looking for what could be perceived as an intimation of sexual or societal submission.

With that in mind, I started approaching baby voice as yet another practice to be overcome, much like habitual disorganization or shouting in the halls. In my last teaching job, I was lucky enough to teach my students for three years in a row, and I took great delight in watching them grow and mature as thinkers. They came to me as little children and left for high school as burgeoning adults. I wanted to send them off into adulthood knowing they have the right to take up space with their voices.

If, as Lake Bell asserts, baby voice is learned, it can be unlearned through practice, positive reinforcement, and more practice. However, before tackling the symptom, I wanted to get at the root of the problem. I turned to psychotherapist and author Katie Hurley. She explained that younger children tend to use this form of vocal regression to cope with anxiety, when they are feeling overwhelmed or battling intrusive, distressing emotions and thoughts. For older children, she said, “it can stem from low self-esteem or is used to seek attention from peers and/or adults.”

Hurley recommends that teachers and parents look at the underlying feelings behind upspeak and baby talk. “Saying something like, ‘From the way you're talking, it sounds like you might be feeling overwhelmed or anxious right now’ shows the child that you understand where they are and you are there to support them without judgment or punishment.”

I’ve seen this strategy work in my own experience as a teacher. After class one day, I finally decided to speak to a sixth grade student who was a frequent babytalk and upspeak user. We sat down in my office during snack time, and, over our herbal tea and cookies, we talked about why she uses such a high-pitched voice at some times and not others. I’d heard her on stage, when she’d inhabited a character in her fifth-grade play, and her voice dropped down into an authoritative and confident place. She talked about the pressures she’d faced, living in the shadow of a superstar older sibling, her tense relationship with her mother, and her worries about living up to her parents’ expectations. That conversation turned into a three-year-long effort to identify when and why she shifts into baby voice. Once we’d done that, we worked together to get out of that doubting voice and down into a definitive, confident chest voice rooted in her core, a voice worthy of the weighty insights she shared in class.

I also worked to instill these lessons in all my students. I incorporated a lot more public speaking in all of my classes. I taught my students to stand on both feet, hips square, chests out, and shoulders back. I invited the drama teacher come to class and teach them how to take up space with their words. He taught them how to breathe deeply, from the diaphragm, to project, and to be ready to speak before they open their mouths. All of my students benefitted from these lessons, but my babytalker more than anyone else. Her classmates and teachers started listening to her. By the end of her eighth grade year, she had emerged an academic and social leader. At graduation, she gave a speech describing her long battle with self-doubt, and the pride she experienced as she learned how to have confidence in her own ideas and her ability to express herself.

As I support my students and bear witness to their growth, I will keep Hurley’s advice close to my heart. I will listen to them without judgment or punishment, and make sure their outer voice—the one the world will hear and judge as they make their way out there—matches the depth and breadth of their inner voice.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/02/why-middle-school-girls-sometimes-talk-like-babies/283894/