I'm a contemporary romance author writing a romance Christmas book. The hero in my story has a six year old girl. There are lots of conversations with the six year old, but when I read my story back to me, she sounds like an adult. Can someone offer some suggestions to how to write dialog that sounds like a six year old talking? Are there books available to help in this? Any guidance would be greatly appreciated.
Without being pejorative, six year olds are very shallow and (if not abused) very trusting, they believe what adults tell them. Unless they are rationally precocious, most believe (or would be happy to believe) in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and the Stork that brings babies, and unicorns and dragons and all sorts of Magic -- but do not take those as exceptions, to a six year old everything is basically magic! They do not truly understand how anything works, so if you tell them their iPhone and TV and car work by magic, they will believe that. They really don't have the teaching or life experience to separate fantasy from reality, or any deep level of understanding.
This shallowness extends into their humor: We humans only find something humorous if it breaks an internalized norm. So as an adult you can understand a sexual joke, or a political joke, or a work place joke, or a joke related to dumb investments or being conned.
About the only rules six year olds have internalized are related to bathroom activities and the most basic polite behavior; so they find fart jokes funny, or saying "poop" in front of company, or purposely chewing with their mouth open, or dribbling spit. Breaking taboos is funny. They don't get innuendo or implications, they don't leap to the "If ... Then ..." consequences of what somebody says.
Or I should say "Most" for six, since some as young as four and five are beginning to question the veracity of whether Santa Claus is real. In first grade, most of them cannot even subtract yet. Six year old girls believe they can be a princess with a magical wand.
Their arguments end quickly with "terminating" claims: Why don't you use bad words? Because God will be mad at you. Why will God be mad at you? I don't know, Mommy says so, so its true.
The advice I have is to make your child's understanding shallow and without nuance or hidden meaning. They relate through fairy tales, and children's shows. When they don't understand something, they don't ask intelligent questions to improve their understanding. They change the subject, or offer solutions that are centered on their own feelings and experiences, that to an adult seem ridiculously shallow.
Are you still sad because of Uncle Allen?
Yes, sweetie, I am very sad.
Do you want to watch cartoons with me?
Because ... What makes a six year old happy? She doesn't understand other lives; so what in HER life makes her happy? She doesn't understand things like responsibility or duty, or why she has to go to school, or go to bed at nine, or eat her vegetables. Her life is filled with rules she follows to avoid punishment, lines she cannot cross (and doesn't truly comprehend why), and a handful of choices about her entertainment (what to watch, who to play with, etc) and to a lesser extent, her food choices. Her solution to the grief resulting from the loss of a sibling may not be faith in the after life or a reflection on his heroism or kindness, it may be chocolate cake.
They will have a very limited vocabulary, they will not use any but the most shallow metaphors or similes. They won't understand a "corruption that spread like cancer," because they don't understand either corruption or metastasizing cancer. (They probably know what "cheating" at a game is, but seldom more than "it is being bad," and that isn't good.)
You must put yourself in this naive, literal, shallow-but-well-meaning mind, and guard against allowing the girl any "adult" comprehension. I would not make her mispronounce adult words, or pretend she has some vague concept of something (like an extramarital affair) that is beyond her years.
My best advice: spend some time with six-year-olds and see how they talk. Go to an elementary school and listen to them. If that's not possible, watch vlogs or family videos.
From my experience, they meander through their thought process, they stutter, they use run-ons, they mention unnecessary details, and they get distracted easily. Their speech is halting because they're searching for words but really want to talk, but they're old enough to be self-aware and consider a few outcomes of what they say and do.
In terms of behavior, they have favorites and focus on their favorite things, mentioning everything about them. They'll never deny a free gift out of propriety or modesty. They're proud of their accomplishments. They especially care about rules and the bottom line, and they'll strongly tell you when you're wrong or out of line.
I very much disagree with a child being shallow. They see and know more than they let on, and they'll make conclusions based on what they see, especially on what someone really cares about as opposed to what they say they care about. They can sniff out phonies after an extended period of time, and they'll tell you what they heard when they're contradicted since they care about rules.
This might help: http://www.pbs.org/parents/childdevelopmenttracker/six/index.html
Try to think of that whiny voice you told to shush up ten times a day. Usually, six year olds wouldn't have a good vocabulary, so change the words so that they sound normal, and not that smart. For example, if you would say: "Please pass the dinner rolls", that six year old would either grab it herself, or demand it: "I want the dinner rolls!"
How to make dialogues sound like coming from six-year-olds?
You have to consider both the mind and the environment a young person lives in.
- Local dialect: kids often have a very small area where they live in and they will often use the language they are most exposed to which is the local dialect. For instance, this has been done in "Boku dake ga inai machi" where the kids speak to each other in local dialect.
- Family speech: similar to local dialect kids will use what they're exposed too. Kids have a small world. If the family members curse a lot, a six-year-old will mimic both the word and body language.
- Mispronunciations: If there are many syllables, just leave one out. Also, you can skip a few letters, switch them around, or replace consonants or vowels. For instance, "Wow, bewootivul!" or "I don't want to go to the tendist!"
- Childlike optimism and enthusiasm: When asked who wants to go the supermarket, kids respond: "Yay! Yeah! Yoohoo!" and when they're there "Dad, can I have an eyescream?" while looking up with big cute eyes.
- Kids notice (and find pleasure in) things adults don't: Here is an anecdote from when I went to dinner with my nephew. "Ah, hahaha, that snowman has tits!" while looking at a poster ad in the bathroom of the restaurant. And it really did. The guy next to me burst out into laughter.
Hi: I like the responder who suggested spending some time with six year olds. I am a speech pathologist and this is hands down the best way to get a sense of how they talk. You can even tape their speech to get a sense of the rhythm, length, semantics and syntax of their messages. If that's not possible, there are resources on the web regarding the language development achievements at age six. For example, this one: https://www.speechandlanguagekids.com/what-speech-and-language-skills-should-my-6-year-old-have/ Good luck.
I mentioned this in a comment, but thinking it could be considered an answer too. (Observing my recently turned 6 niece and remembering her mother at that age.) There's a lot of behavioral cues to take note of as well as dialogue. Also bit of your mileage will vary based on person, but what I notice is there's tons of physical energy to burn.
For a child, it isn't just enough to talk or watch something. a child tends to want you to be physically engaged with their world, their conversation, their imaginative play. They want to be immersed in it and they want you to be too. This translates into wanting to get your attention. This is expressed by asking, crying out, begging, tugging, poking, to shoving things into your face. (the level of how far this goes depends on how desperate the child is at the moment and if they feel you are ignoring them.) To be ignored feels like a great insult and a great hurt to a child. (speaking this also from how I felt at age 6)
Also the level of how engaged they want you to be may also vary on personality. I suspect my niece is an extrovert. She wants to share her experience with you and you to play along with her.
Me at age 6: Introvert: I preferred it when I had an adult to play along, but if not, then I would go play on my own. This translated into running off and disappearing to getting into trouble (by trying to do stuff on my own without fully understanding all the cause/ effect related.)
Taking this into your story, along with the advice mentioned in other answers, consider the personality of your character. If extraverted, you can play off of the physical actions of them trying to draw the adult characters attention. In a conversation this may translate to them getting into the characters faces and acting out as an attempt to distract the adults. The child may want to show them stuff. (you can have this as either inconsequential or something significant to the plot. Your choice.)
An introvert 6 year old child: May notice the adult characters, try to engage them, but give up and run off, disappear. They may try to go on their own separate adventure and either come back to engage the adult characters or get stuck or lost or get into trouble. Or just come back with whatever they found, not causing trouble. (ie: come back with a handful of flowers or a jar full of captured bugs.)
Hopefully this helps a little with working on your story. I too have the issue of having to stop and think like a child with my younger characters too. Also, speaking from memory and my own introspections made around that age, a child narrating will think like an adult, at least in their mind, but flawed with their reasoning. Externally their words will come out childish, but the internal voice will seem mature and grown up. At least that was how I felt. My internal "narrator" seemed mature, used full sentences and insight. Conversation wise, there was a bit of a gap, loss of words, and things not coming out as they meant. That would be a source of frustration and one I felt too.
Six-year-olds would have lots and lots of energy. For example, if they're going to the ice cream shop, a kid would have her eyes wide open staring at the different flavours to choose from. And when in demand of something, they would have the lack of politeness like "I want the chocolate flavoured one with sprinkles!" and possibly if they never get what they want, then they'd start crying. If you were the one taking care of a six-year-old, then you would have to be really gentle and kind with them even if they would have the lack of kindness towards you. Scolding them to be quiet all day, telling them to clean up after themselves. Six-year-olds wouldn't be the ones sounding smart (unless your writing about a smart six-year-old) like "Pwease can I have another one?" (in that case it would be begging), they almost always beg. So in conclusion, technically six-year-olds would have lots of energy, and always wanting stuff. Hope this helps!