How to Talk to Children
Kids: They’re just like us in a lot of ways. Apart from being shorter and cuter, of course, and going through complicated developmental processes (cognitive, emotional, and social) that influence both who they are today and who they will become in the future, these little ones are anything from ordinary.
In the words of Mo Willems, a kid superstar if there ever was one, “Childhood is an intrinsically tough time.” I couldn’t agree more. Children are relatively inexperienced in the world, and they have little control over the events that unfold in their life. To make matters worse, as a 4-year-old acquaintance pointed out, many adults, even teachers, aren’t particularly effective at communicating with children. When I recently spoke with her, she noted that, far too often, adults simply tell children what to do without ever asking them any questions themselves. Her head shook as she explained that they did not say, “Hello, how are you doing?” In other words, they don’t ask questions like, “Who are the people in your family?” Even when adults attempt to engage in conversation with children, she continued, their voices are sometimes too loud or their personalities come out as a little too strong. A friend of mine, who is eight years old, agreed with me on this last point: “It’s important for adults to be humorous—but not too funny,” she said.
So, what is the best way for instructors to approach communicating to children? I’ve compiled a few insights and tricks for talking to kids between the ages of 4 and 10 based on my own experience with children, which includes training and work as an elementary school teacher, as well as consulting a few experts (both traditional and unconventional), as well as a few very thoughtful friends who haven’t yet celebrated double-digit birthdays.
TAKE TIME TO UNDERSTAND WHERE THEY ARE DEVELOPMENTALLY
When it comes to addressing how adults misunderstand little children, Erika Christakis, author of The Importance of Being Little, articulates a fundamental irony: “When it comes to addressing how adults misunderstand little children, Erika Christakis articulates a fundamental irony: “When it comes to addressing how adults misunderstand little children, Erika Christakis articulates a fundamental irony: “When it comes to addressing how adults misunderstand little children, Erika Christaki “I believe we have a mismatch problem, in which we both underestimate and overestimate children,” she said in a 2016 interview with The Atlantic, explaining that when children are provided with developmentally appropriate conditions, they do not, contrary to popular belief, have short attention spans. “I believe we have a mismatch problem,” she said. Children, on the other hand, are unable to keep up with fast changing adult schedules or to put themselves in the shoes of others, as is required of them.
When I spoke with Christakis in 2019, she described the unwillingness to consider the child’s perspective as “adultification.” She believes that this tendency is responsible for many of the obstacles that children face in American society, such as overcrowding of classrooms and a lack of appreciation for the importance of unstructured play.
The Yale Child Study Center’s Nancy Close says that, while all children are different, younger children tend to be more egocentric—”either they are impacting something or something is impacting them”—and that, as a child grows older, she is more likely to be able to “hold another’s point of view with a great deal more versatility.” (The book Yardsticks, by Chip Wood, is an excellent resource for a full explanation of the typical stages of infant development.)
When conversing with a child, adults should be mindful of how the child perceives herself in relation to the rest of the world and frame the conversation accordingly. In the case of two children in dispute, a teacher should be conscious of their developmental needs: Kindergartners may respond well to direct queries about how they feel, but fourth graders would likely be better able to offer their opinions on equitable rule systems for all.
TAKE THEM SERIOUSLY—AND NEVER CONDESCEND
As a result of nature, children are exceptionally adept at detecting tone and subtext in speech. The same way you would never speak in a condescending tone or use baby language in a classroom, you should take what the students are saying seriously while speaking with them. Keep in mind that even very young children can think about and examine very important issues with a great deal of seriousness. Introduce nothing that is frightening—debates on nuclear disarmament may wait a few years—but don’t feel obligated to keep everything bright and cheery either.
The William Alanson White Institute of Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis, and Psychology in New York City, according to Seth Aronson, a psychologist and professor, recommends that adults allow children to guide conversations about emotional or heavy topics—and that the first step to navigating potentially tricky conversations is for adults to be able to tolerate their own anxieties about discussing those topics with children. All children are unique in their own way: The content and tone of your speech should be dictated by the child in front of you.
While you’re talking, don’t rush to fill in the gaps between sentences because doing so can make children feel more anxious. Phrases that you would use with an adult discussion partner—”I agree,” “I understand what you’re saying,” “Say more”—can go a long way toward helping youngsters feel respected and heard, not only in terms of the content of the conversation but also in terms of their feelings of respect and hearing.
LISTEN FOR THE SUBTEXT
Children frequently lack the language or emotional tools necessary to express themselves clearly and completely. Fred Rogers had a favourite anecdote about a young kid who informed him that his teddy bear’s ear had come off in the wash shortly after he attended a preschool classroom. Upon more reflection, Rogers understood that the youngster was not simply recounting an incident; rather, he was expressing his fear that something similar might happen to him. All of the children there showed signs of relief as soon as Rogers explained that it was impossible for humans to lose bodily parts while having a bath.
In addition to paying great attention to what youngsters are saying or attempting to say, it’s critical to take note of their nonverbal communication as well as their verbal communication. Close, a child psychologist, says that if a child is crossing his arms or pouting, for example, that you convey your honest reactions to his body language in a genuine manner to him. According to Close, “you might remark, ‘You just stated you’re excited, but it doesn’t really look like you are feeling it,'” she said.
GIVE COMPLIMENTS THAT ARE MEANINGFUL, SPECIFIC, AND TRUE—OR COULD BE TRUE ONE DAY
Children want to know that their efforts are being seen and appreciated by others. Compliment them on things they do (“I can tell you’ve been putting in a lot of effort into improving your sketching skills”) or reflect back to them the traits you know they’d like to see in themselves (“It’s fantastic that you’re such a supportive buddy”). Even if a youngster does not have a reputation for being a diligent worker, framing their efforts in this manner can motivate them to put out their best effort.
Make your compliments as detailed as possible, and avoid complimenting them on things they have no influence over (such as their physical beauty) or things over which they have no control (“Wow, you have such a large family!”).
SHARE OF YOURSELF
Children are interested in learning about the world of adults, therefore it is beneficial to include them in discussions about issues that they may find interesting. Have you ever experimented with a new morning cereal? Are you feeling giddy over a new buddy you’ve made? Are you looking forward to spending time with your brother while watching a hilarious movie? Inform them of the situation—and be detailed.
Rather than simply mentioning that you used to take dance classes when you were in fourth grade, tell them all about your ridiculous dance teacher and the time your friend Stacy, who was always trying to get the other kids to laugh, pretended to burp loudly in the middle of practise to get everyone’s attention. Children enjoy stories that they can relate to, and good stories are built on the foundation of solid details.
GET ON THEIR LEVEL—LITERALLY
Isn’t it strange to have a conversation with someone who towers over you? My own personal experience has been that it is unpleasant, if not downright threatening—especially if the big person speaks in a loud, booming voice.
When you’re chatting to small children, keep your scooch down. It is possible to have a comparable psychological effect by putting oneself on an equal physical footing with the child—the child is participating in a discussion rather than listening to a lecture. If they’re talking loudly, match their volume—or, as my 4-year-old friend phrased it, “Don’t be loud”—and use a mild but natural tone of voice to convey the impression that you’re conversing with someone who’s really intriguing and highly bright (because you are).
USE TRIED-AND-TRUE TOPICS AND TACTICS
Every child in my life is well-versed in the antics of my extremely goofy cat, Tabitha. Most children enjoy talking about their pets, as well as their favourite subjects (colours, animals, melodies), and things that are disgusting. Also included are kid-friendly techniques such as informing them of a secret (“Hardly any kid is aware of this!”) or a joke (a wink would suffice), soliciting their expertise, or asking for their recommendations.
When I taught second grade, my students and I would gather at the beginning of each day to discuss the difficulties we were experiencing in our personal lives and to offer one other solutions. The fact that many of my most important problems, such as how to encourage myself to fold laundry, how I can get myself to bed sooner, and what to do when I keep forgetting my winter gloves at home, were answered by some very thoughtful 7-year-olds makes me feel no embarrassment whatsoever.
Kids, for the most part, want to interact with people who are interested in interacting with them, so take advantage of the opportunity to converse with someone who, definitely, sees the world in a very different light than you do.