Recently I took my 4-year old son to a make-your-own pottery event at our local children’s museum. There was another woman there with her grandson sitting across the table from us. Every time my son spoke, she laughed. At first, I didn’t pay much attention. I happen to think my son is hilarious, so I can understand her reaction. After awhile, however, it began to irritate me. We were sitting close together, and her son had spoken to us several times. My son, in turn, spoke to them several times. Instead of responding in any meaningful way, however, all the woman did was laugh.
This experience validated something I’ve been thinking about for quite some time: that many adults have no clue how to talk to kids. Instead of treating kids like normal human beings—small, young human beings but normal nonetheless—they treat them more like puppies or kittens. Cuddly creatures that are entertaining to watch, but not someone you would have a conversation with.
If you’re thinking right now that I’m crazy, that of course people talk to kids, then you’re probably one of the people who know how to do this. Pat yourself on the back.
There are plenty of people, however, who don’t know how to talk to kids. Otherwise Stanford University wouldn’t see the need to do this study, which found that talking to toddlers directly increases their language skills. I don’t know about you, but that seems like a no-brainer to me. Someone felt the need to study the impact of talking to kids, however, which tells me there are plenty of people who aren’t very good at it.
My husband and I started having conversations with my eldest son since the time he was old enough to talk. He started preschool at two years old, and even though at the time he could barely put two words together, we would talk about preschool on the way home from school. I would ask him questions like, “What did you have for your snack?” “What toys did you play with?” and so forth.
Over the next six months or so, as he learned to form sentences, our conversations expanded. He began to recognize a “conversation” as an activity to do, just like toys, puzzles, playgrounds or any of the other activities in his life. We would sit at the dinner table when he was two-and-a-half years old and he would say, “Let’s talk about cars. What one you like?” launching a conversation where we all took turns describing the colors and models of cars we liked.
Of course these early conversations were very basic, and pretty mindless to an adult. But we were engaging in a real conversation with him, listening to his interests, and gaining insight into the way he thought.
As he turned three and four years old, the conversations became downright hilarious. Laugh-out-loud funny at times. Enchanted by the way his little mind worked, I began posting excerpts of these conversations on Facebook. My friends and family started commenting on them—both in person and on Facebook—all the time. There were two things I heard a lot from them: 1) I must be a really good storyteller to be able to pick out the best parts and post these fun little stories for people to read. 2) My son must be a really bright, funny kid.
While I hope there is some truth in those things, I think the real answer was in part much simpler. I had a lot of funny little conversations with my son because I took the time to talk to him on his level, listen to what he had to say, and pay attention. I didn’t think there was any great skill or understanding required to do this until I started paying attention to how other adults talk to kids.
So if you want to have a real conversation with a child and connect with him or her on a meaningful level, here is how NOT to do it.
1. Laugh and pretend you understood what they said when you really didn’t.
Kids are sometimes hard to understand. I think this makes some people nervous, so instead of asking a child to repeat herself, they simply laugh and pretend they understood. A better choice would be to simply ask her to say it again, or if you really can’t understand, ask some follow-up questions to keep the conversation going. “Tell me more about that” or “Tell me what else you think about that,” for example.
2. Respond with one-word exclamations.
Kids drive adults crazy with their one-word answers (“How was school?” “Fine.”), but adults are often just as bad. When a young child says something, many adults respond with “Really!” “Wow!” or “Oh my goodness!” (Okay, that was three words, but you get the point.) If you have a particularly talkative child, you might not have a chance to say much more than a one-word response, but for other kids, these can be conversation killers. Regardless of how chatty your little one is, one-word responses don’t usually lead to a meaningful conversation.
3. Make socially incorrect chit chat.
I wrote about this a few weeks ago in a post called Stop Trying to Fix My Introverted Child. Why do adults say things to kids you would never say to an adult? Such as: “That’s a really big donut! I think I’ll eat that for you!”
4. Ask rhetorical questions.
“How did you get so big?” and aunt or uncle might say that after not seeing a nephew for a few months. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it doesn’t open the doors of conversation.
5. Ask closed-ended questions.
If you don’t want a one-word response to your own attempts at conversation, don’t ask questions that lead to one-word answers. Ask “What was your favorite candy you got on Halloween?” instead of “Did you go trick-or-treating?”
6. Compliment their appearance.
“Look how cute you are today!” or “You look so handsome!” one might say. Adults say this stuff to kids all the time. Compliments are nice and can help build confidence. It would be nice, however, to focus on things other than appearance from time to time. Or at least follow it up with a different approach to conversation. Even adults aren’t always great at receiving compliments, and these statements can leave kids feeling shy and unsure what to say as well.
7. Make conversations too purposeful.
Sometimes as adults we use communication with kids to accomplish our own goals, shuffling them through the day, instructing them what to do, or teaching them what we think they need to know. Sometimes the best thing we can do, however, is to have a conversation with no point, where we have a chance to ask questions, listen, and learn more about them.