How we talk to kids matters

I was listening to Cross Country Check up yesterday. It’s a Canadian Radio show on CBC, hosted by Rex Murphy. People call in and discuss current issues on air. This weeks show was about a new publication of Huckleberry Finn with some of the words and content changed to remove language and content deemed to be offensive given the modern context. A girl called in, 10 years old, who has read the book and wanted to share her opinion that the book should be left as is.

What struck me though was how different Rex Murphy spoke to this 10 year old then how he spoke to his other guests. It bothered me. It even offended me. I had to turn it off.

I believe he was just trying to engage with her with the best of intentions, but the tone came off condescending. He acted surprised (fake surprised) when she said she had read the book. He asked her whether her parents thought it was a good book. Really, it wasn’t so much what he said, but the way he said it. It sounded just patronizing.

Sometimes the way people talk to children bothers me. It’s not really any of my business. I really believe that most of the times when I am offended, it really isn’t intentionally condescending, it just feels that way to me. But it still bothers me and has gotten me thinking about that way I think we should talk to children. In my opinion, anyway.ย  And as a personal confession, I am sure I talked at times in ways that, if I had recorded and played back, would have bothered me to hear myself. I think sometimes it is hearing it in others conversations that we start to hear how odd and kinda wrong it sounds.

It is not so much about the content of the conversation. There is certainly something to be said for age appropriate content to a conversation. Obviously explaining war, disease and famine to a two year old is not appropriate. There is certainly a discussion to be had around age appropriate content in conversation. But this post is more about tone of conversation then the content.

Here is how I think we ‘should’ talk with kids”:

I think we should genuinely engage in rather then ‘humor’ kids with the conversation. Kids can spot falseness 20 miles away. They may not be able to put their finger on it or explain what it is they are hearing, but I suspect they feel that they are being humored. I think when we speak to children we need to be genuinely interested in what they have to say and really hear them out. Ask real questions. Genuine questions that will help you understand what they are saying and trying to share with you.

We should listen more then we praise. A lot of times when I see non-parental figures talking with kids, I see them pay them a compliment. “Wow, aren’t you just a polite little boy/girl”. Which is well intentioned. But I think it does more to show a child they are valued by really listening to them, then by paying them an empty compliment. Engaging them in a really discussion on a topic they find interesting does far more to help them know they have something of worth to say. I believe kids thoughts, opinions and beliefs are often brushed off or pushed aside. They want to be heard. So listening can mean more to them then a compliment.

We should have real reactions. I know with really little kids we (at least in many people I have witnessed, including myself) have a tendency to want to exaggerate emotions like excitement. I clap and cheer like a crazy person when my daughter uses the potty. I suspect we do that to help them learn about emotions and their meaning. But I think sometimes we can, especially with older kids, take that a bit too far. Again, kids sense a fake tone of voice. When we feign surprise to try and make them feel they have done something special I suspect the child knows its not genuine.

I really think we need to value a child’s unique perspective. They are not just a younger adult with less knowledge. They see the world often quite differently then we do. I think there is really value in trying to connect with that and really hear what they have to say. There is an assumption out there that we can’t learn from children- we know more. I believe that assumption is wrong. I think if we approach the conversation with a child really recognizing that we can learn something from them, it goes a long way to demonstrate respect for them.

And lastly, I think we need to still remember that we are the adult. What I mean by that, is obviously, if we hear a child saying something unkind about someone or saying something inappropriate, we still have the responsibility to respectfully correct them. Having respect and having a genuine conversation, doesn’t mean we don’t still have an obligation to support our children to learn good values and good behaviour.

I believe talking with true respect to children is important. I think it fosters children who know they have something worthwhile to say and offer. It allows us, as adults, to hear and learn what they are experiencing and about their unique perspective.

So please Rex, no more of the ‘patting on the head’ conversations, okay?


11 responses to “How we talk to kids matters

  1. Justine January 10, 2011 at 7:35 am

    Great post. Montessori educational philosophy teaches that we should treat children with respect; that they deserve to be listened to, and that they have a valuable contribution to make to the world. Indeed, imagine what this world would look like if we really did?!

  2. janetlansbury January 10, 2011 at 10:00 am

    Totally agree, and this begins with the way we perceive and communicate with babies. I’m writing about it as we speak (Baby Discipline “Person To Person”). Thanks for this post!

  3. thelexhex January 10, 2011 at 10:59 am

    This is a great post about something that a lot of people seem to just gloss over. I hate that kids are always met with “Oh, wow — REALLY?” or “STFU” when they speak to older folks. It’s quite uncalled for, really.

  4. jesse January 10, 2011 at 1:01 pm

    I couldn’t agree more.

    I remember folks calling me out on the fact that I talked to my kids without using a sing-song voice. When they were babies, I cooed to them, but when they were old enough to speak, I talked to them in the same voice I’d use with adults.

    Now those same folks compliment me on the confidence and intelligence they see in my kids.

  5. Dionna @ Code Name: Mama January 10, 2011 at 5:31 pm

    The empty compliments are frustrating, because it takes away from the interaction and emphasizes the social niceties. It says, “I don’t care as much what you say as how you say it.”
    Yes, it’s great that the 10 yr old was polite, but I bet she had a lot of interesting stuff to add to the conversation – and shouldn’t her view have been given more weight, since they were talking about what kids should or should not be reading?! (sigh)
    Unfortunately, I’m not sure how we can make the population at large understand this, without first ridding our culture of the larger anti-child attitude we so often see. Here is a great post about adult privilege:

  6. kelly @kellynaturally January 10, 2011 at 5:37 pm

    Another Montessori Mom here! ๐Ÿ™‚
    Children CAN do more than MOST adults believe they can; they are able to think and process and make choices and follow through on so much more than many people often give them credit for.
    “We should listen more then we praise.” And observe, as well. Adults tend to want to step in and fix or praise or instruct, when if we’d take a step back and watch & listen, we’d learn a lot more.

    • amoment2think January 10, 2011 at 5:41 pm

      Totally! I think we often dismiss babies/toddlers/kids as helpless and incapable- but when we give them the opportunity they can really surprise us!

      Observing is so important. Often stepping back is one of the best things we can do. I can watch my daughters self-esteem grow when I step back and watch her figure something out for herself, rather then trying to show her or fix her problem. It’s wonderful.

  7. Sophie January 10, 2011 at 6:18 pm

    Totally agree, and for what it’s worth, I find Rex Murphy condescending with everyone, that’s why we don’t listen to him anymore ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. Perpetua January 11, 2011 at 6:21 am

    When I was a kid we were treated like “little adults,” but in the good sense of that term, not the bad. People treated us like we were smart enough to understand, and we were held to standards appropriate for our age.

    I’ve been trying to do that with E, too. I treat him like he knows how to reason about things, because I’m pretty sure he does. He listens to me, at any rate (“We can’t go outside now, it’s dark. We can go out tomorrow” usually works). But on the other hand, I know he’s 1.5. So if he is tired, I know he’s going to yell about a banana that fell on the floor or something else that normally wouldn’t bug him, and that’s fine.

    I don’t know how people manage not to say “no,” though. I’m not saying it’s a bad philosophy. I just don’t know how you get it to work. Yesterday he wanted to put his boat in the toilet, which made sense from a “boat in water” perspective. But I had to give a quick “NO,” followed by “we don’t put our toys where our poopies go” explanation.

  9. Megan January 11, 2011 at 5:51 pm

    Great post.

    I know when I’ve lapsed into condescension with my nieces because they stop talking to me. So if I’m not giving them my full attention or I am false with my praise or curiosity, they IMMEDIATELY lose interest in the conversation. They’re very smart. Then I feel like a horrible person and snap out of it. But, I think it will happen from time to time. Kids talk A LOT.

    I’ve learned that sometimes my nieces and even my 22 month old daughter DO know more than me. And I have no problem owning up to that. I would never pretend to know more than them just to establish a position of authority. That authority is meaningless if they don’t respect you, and they won’t if you pretend to know more than them. They’ll know you’re wrong!

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