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Early Talkers

When Taylor Middleton's daughter, Anna, saw him carrying her plate to the table, she protested that she could do it: "I will be careful, careful, careful. I promise." Middleton, of Big Sky, MT, gave her the plate -- and she promptly dropped it. "I should have known better," he says. "But she was so convincing."

At just 19 months, Anna's what experts call a precocious talker -- a toddler who can speak in four- or five-word sentences and/or has a vocabulary of more than 400 words before age 2. And while it might seem like a blessing to have a little kid who can tell you exactly what he wants, there's sometimes a large gap between what early talkers say and what they really understand or do.

"Just because a child has advanced language skills doesn't mean he has the social, emotional, or physical skills to go along with them," says Claire Lerner, a child-development specialist at Zero to Three, a nonprofit organization devoted to early-childhood development. If you've got an early-talking toddler:

* Don't take him at his word. A 16-month-old who swears not to touch a vase but then grabs it a minute later wasn't lying. He simply can't control his impulses yet. Along with listening to what he says, you'll have to rely on past experience: What has he shown you he's capable of?

* Think literally. Caroline Rudnick's 18-month-old, William, often asked, "Can I go upstairs?" But upstairs wasn't a destination. Rudnick, of Wichita, KS, finally realized her son just wanted to totter up -- and back down -- the staircase.

* Be firm. It's easy to get sucked into negotiations with an early talker, since he can argue his case or offer alternatives. But like all toddlers, he needs you to stick to what you say -- knowing you're in charge gives him an invaluable sense of security.

* Keep things age-appropriate. Even though he sounds more sophisticated than his years, he's not ready to handle TV shows, books, and movies that are meant for older kids.

* Enjoy the show. Early talkers offer a wonderful glimpse into the mind of a toddler. Those funny -- and often insightful -- comments will give you something to talk about for a long time to come.