Living with Literal Thinkers

Literal thinkers are those who interpret what they hear in terms of the actual meaning of words, and not necessarily what is implied. Metaphors are difficult and idioms are a pain. Many children are literal thinkers, especially in the early years. As their vocabulary grows so does their understanding of nuances. They will often change their way of thinking. But how do you live with a literal thinker? 

Not everyone thinks the same way – not even you! Literal thinkers aren’t always aware of how they think. It just happens. Just like the way you think is just the way you think – not something you do on purpose. But when you have a literal thinker in your life you might need to change how you communicate. 

thinking teen girl black and white


Children learn to think naturally as they explore the world, as they play and as they interact with adults. We can help our children develop their thinking skills. I have been working with my girls on critical thinking skills since they were little. 

How can we help our children build a strong foundation in thinking – whether critical, analytical or creative?

  • Provide opportunities for play
  • Don’t intervene immediately
  • Pause and wait
  • Ask open-ended questions
  • Talk through possible hypotheses
  • Encourage critical thinking in new and different ways

Here are some examples from our girls. We were at a party and one was a little upset (not really sure of the reason why) and I said “Turn that frown upside down.” Her response was to look at me quizically and say “Mummy, I can’t! I can’t turn my head upside down!”

I am known for often using idioms, and I will throw them in, even with my girls. Something I will often say is “Hold your horses” when they are getting impatient with me. The usual response from them? “I don’t have any horses.” The first time I said it was the best response as they looked around for horses before telling me they didn’t have any.

The English language is complex and, honestly, not the easiest even for the best of speakers. Not only do we have homophones, non-phonetic spelling and such but we also color our language with metaphors, idioms, puns, exaggeration, and euphemisms. Let’s not forget personification, sarcasm and irony, figurative language and implied assumptions. Phew. It’s not straightforward, so for a straightforward thinker it is not easy to understand what is meant. 

thinking girl colorful background


Are you joking? This is a question I am often asked lately. I tend to use sarcasm a lot, along with hyperbole and euphemisms. I have toned down my use of idioms in being married to someone with English as a second language, but I am still working on the rest. My poor 6 year olds. 


Concrete thinking is literal thinking that is focused on the physical world. It is the opposite of abstract thinking. People engaged in concrete thinking are focused on facts in the here and now, physical objects, and literal definitions. Again, many children in their younger years are concrete thinkers, and this can change as they grow and develop. 


Often when we think of literal thinkers we tend to think right away of children or adults with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome. It is true that this is a characteristic of many people with Autism or Asperger’s, it is not limited to just them. Many people are literal thinkers. 


Usually we think of this when doing a direct word to word translation from one language to another, but when it comes to children we need to think of the fact that what they hear they are translating into their experience and knowledge. Taking the term and applying it literally can create some interesting translations in communication. 

child on potty


I know that I have talked about this Daniel Tiger song before. Working with literal thinking children, and then having one of my own, this song can be confusing. I first encountered the literal aspect of the song here in the States, largely because that is where I was introduced to Daniel Tiger, but also because in Australia, “potty” refers to the little plastic training potty toddlers use, not to the act, or to the toilet. We say “go to the toilet” or “I need to wee”. But, let’s look at the lyrics “If you need to go potty, stop and go right away”. How could a literal thinker hear this? As the act of “go potty”, not as “go to the potty…… and do your business there”. I have worked with a few children that took it to mean you just stop and go right where you are. My daughter was like that too. In looking at the lyrics and at my daughter I got why she did what she did. It said to stop and go right away. So she did. We avoided that song for a while. It saved my sanity. 


While we are talking about toilet stuff, here is another example of our little literal thinker changing how we needed to communicate with her.

We had successfully toilet trained but we noticed some “mess” here and there in the bathroom and an odor would follow one that was a little perturbing. It was quite the quandary. Finally, after overhearing a conversation between the girls in the bathroom, it was a lightbulb moment. One, our literal thinker, was sitting on the toilet trying to do a number 2. Her sister was squatting down in front of her, encouraging her, cheering her, telling her to “Just squeeze it!” So squeeze it out she did, and then when finished she turned, put her hands in and SQUEEZED IT! She took it literally, hence the mess!

We have since learned to be careful of what we say and how we say it. Yes, I still catch myself having to correct things. Having a literal thinker certainly keeps you on your toes. Do you have a literal thinker in your house? Have any stories to share? I would love to hear some of your experiences.

Another thing we can develop in our children is imagination. Here is an earlier post on this topic.

Tools for Kinesthetic Learners
Abeka – Is The Homeschool Curriculum Good – Pros & Cons


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