My son will be 3 years old in July. At home he is talking more than he used to, but he talks more at daycare and says things he doesn’t at home. Has anyone else experienced this?

It’s not uncommon for parents to report that their child is displaying developmental abilities at daycare that they aren’t yet doing at home. More often, parents report this in terms of adaptive routines, like feeding, sleeping or using the potty. Sometimes, the way we treat our children at home can contribute to this, and our children might behave in a more immature manner at home as compared to how they behave at daycare. The most common example I hear about this is around sleeping routines. At home, some children get in the habit of being rocked or nursed to sleep whereas, at daycare, they fall asleep independently. Some parents are shocked to hear that their children can fall asleep without such supports and are frustrated when they find that it isn’t so easy to get their children to do this at home. My best explanation for this is that young children, like adults, tend to fall into easy (if unhealthy) habits at home and, once we’ve established those habits, it’s hard to break them. At school, children are motivated by their peers — they go lie down on a cot at naptime because they see all their buddies doing it — but, at home, they want to be comfortable, and they want their parents to fulfill their expectations of comfort and habit.

It’s hard to say whether a similar dynamic may be at play in terms of your son and his relative lack of speech at home. It’s possible that he may have gotten used to not having to use his language at home — that he has come to expect that his parents will fulfill his needs without him doing the work that it takes to ask for what he wants. At daycare, he may be socially motivated — he sees his peers using their words and he follows suit. Additionally, relationships with daycare providers are often different than relationships with parents. Relationships with daycare providers tend to be less emotionally intense, particularly in terms of the power struggles that are common at this age. Daycare providers tend not to see as many tantrums as parents do during this developmental stage; the tantrums are an example of the interpersonal dynamics at play between young children and their parents, dynamics that might not translate to their relationship with daycare providers.

A bigger question here is whether it’s worth having your son evaluated for language delays. If your son is not starting to use more complex language — forming longer sentences (i.e., putting 5+ words together), asking simple questions (with ‘what’/‘where’/‘who’/etc.), using pronouns (like I/you/he/she) and using the past tense — as he approaches his third birthday, it is probably worth doing testing, either in a clinical setting (like here at Children’s National) or through your city or county (i.e., the Early Stages or Child Find Program). If I were to work this child, I would want to hear examples of the most robust language he uses, regardless of the setting, as well as examples of language that your son is using at home. If your son is using age-appropriate language at daycare but not at home, I would want to hear more about how he is doing in other domains — what are his feeding, sleeping and toileting routines like at home as compared to at daycare. If everything else seems to be going well, and his receptive language and nonverbal problem-solving skills are within normal limits, I would try to reassure you that different children behave differently in different settings. I would probably ask more about what types of expectations are placed on your son versus at daycare and try to provide ideas that promote language and age-appropriate routines at home.


Michael Mintz Michael Mintz, PsyD, is a bilingual, attending clinical psychologist at the Child Development Clinic of Children's National with an expertise in autism-spectrum disorders.

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