Language Matters: Fighting Childism With How We Talk to Children

Ever had one of those cringey moments where your child responds to a well-meaning stranger in a way that was very unexpected (for the stranger that is)?

It’s one of the hazards of respectful parenting I think.

WARNING! Your child will not put up with being treated ‘like a child’. Do not be alarmed, it’s a good thing. Proceed as normal, but be prepared.

Or maybe you’ve come across one of these children somewhere and had no idea what you’d done wrong?

Maybe you were the person who pretended to cry to get my child to do something, to which she replied with annoyance, ‘You’re only fake crying and I don’t care!’

Ahh…sorry, but also true, and that’s not going to fly here.

There’s a way we have of interacting with children in our culture. It’s different than how we speak to adults. You know what I mean. There’s a special way of talking and acting that is reserved for any children we might know, whether friend, family, or stranger.

Children remind us of the magical and carefree feeling of childhood, and I think we all just want another taste of that. And so we seek to interact with them in the only way we know how. That is, how adults talked to us when we were that age.

It’s an overly cutesy voice, a pat on the head or a tickle without asking, joking or playing tricks, asking them if they’ve ‘been good’, trying to elicit a please or thank you before helping them, comments like ‘someone’s grumpy today!’ or ‘aww how about a smile for me?’ All things that would be absurd to do to an adult.

No one would ask an adult if they’re being good today, joke about them being in a bad mood as if it was funny, pop out of nowhere and tickle them, or the many other things we reserve for humans of a certain age. And when they responded with shock or annoyance we would apologise instead of mocking their reaction or accusing them of not taking a joke (as children often encounter when they don’t like being laughed at).

I honestly don’t believe anyone who talks to children like this has bad intentions! Not at all. And that’s why it’s a little awkward when our children don’t play along. We don’t want to offend the nice person. In the past (and mostly still now) children were not seen as equal to adults and I think most people don’t really know how else to treat them. Or even realise that they don’t generally like this sort of thing.

Children really just want to be taken seriously, included, respected, considered, and heard. They want to have a meaningful role in our lives, not just be something cute and funny to look at. They want you to talk to them as you would any other person! Sure, they might have different interests than adults, and they often enjoy some silliness, but there’s not a lot of people who find it fun to be laughed at or touched without their permission.

So how DO you talk to kids?

Here are some things to keep in mind…

Speak normally

Some of us, ok a lot of us, put on the ‘kid voice’ when talking to children. You know what I mean; the tone we use, the baby talk. It can be quite patronising. In fact, if you actually look up the word ‘patronise’ in a thesaurus you will find that one of the synonyms listed is ‘treat like a child’. Sooo… apparently we’re all aware of the childist way we speak and treat children. Maybe it’s time to stop?

We have the opportunity when talking to children to convey that we believe they are equal, capable, important, and worthy of our respect. Let’s take it! Every interaction with a child is a chance to show them how amazing they are, even in the most subtle of ways, like our tone of voice. What a gift. So be friendly, by all means, just not patronising.

See an individual, not a ‘kid’

We all know that children’s personalities are as diverse as that of adults, and yet, we tend to lump them all into the same category of ‘kid’ and treat them all the same. The same set of questions/comments are doled out by most adults they meet.

‘Have you been a good boy/girl today?’
‘Ooh what a pretty dress’
‘Oh, Mum’s got her hands full!’
‘Can you say thank you?’
‘Aren’t you cute?’
‘Are you being a big boy/girl?’
‘Are you helping Mummy today?’

Can you imagine these things being said to adults? Wouldn’t it be weird if every stranger you met inquired as to how well you were behaving, tried to get you to learn your manners, joked with others about what a handful you were, or gave their approval of your appearance? I think it’s time we came up with some better questions. They don’t have to be complicated! If it’s a child you’re just meeting for a minute at the shops, a simple ‘how are you today?’ or a friendly smile is fine!

If it’s a child that you know, there are loads of interesting questions you could ask them, and I bet you’ll get far better answers! Maybe…

‘What’s your favourite part of the day so far?’
‘What’s the best book you’ve ever read?’
‘What do you love to learn about?’
‘What’s the best thing about being you?’
‘Do you have a pet? Tell me about them!’
‘What’s the funniest joke you know?’
‘Where is your favourite place to play?

Ask THEM the questions

So often people talk about kids rather than to them. Questions such as ‘are they hungry?’ or ‘are they tired?’ are directed to the parents rather than the child, who is much better able to answer questions relating to how they feel. It must be frustrating to constantly be talked about as if you have no opinion. Treat kids like anyone else. If you want to know something about them, ask them.

Even compliments or thank yous often end up aimed at parents rather than children. We often hear “your kids are so helpful/polite/well-mannered/well behaved”. Instead, we can simply offer our thanks to children if we want to show appreciation. It is, after all, them who deserve the thanks, isn’t it? So just say “thank you for helping me!” or whatever else you were grateful for.

Tell the truth, don’t dumb things down

Kids know when they’re not being told the truth, and would much prefer our honesty. I once heard someone explain the death of a pet to their children by telling them their dog had gone on a long journey and wouldn’t be back. The kids looked confused and wondered where the dog went, and why, and how did she get there?

I understand wanting to protect your child from pain, but we can always give them honest answers that are appropriate to their age level. Otherwise, children just end up feeling confused, tricked, and untrusted.

No patronising questions

“Ask questions to find out something about the world itself, not to find out whether or not someone knows it.” –John Holt

Don’t ask a question that you already know the answer to. I’m not sure what this obsession with testing kids is, but it would be cool if we could quit it. Be genuine! Ask a question to discover an answer, not to test, or display a child’s achievements. Kids know when we’re being insincere, and they don’t appreciate it any more than we would.

STOP

No means no, and stop means stop. If a child asks you to stop doing something to them, then stop. It’s kind of frustrating that this needs to be said, but apparently necessary.

Children have the same rights over their own bodies as adults. You don’t touch, tickle, hug, kiss, poke, or otherwise interact with a child without their consent. This is SO important. We want children to grow up knowing that they are in charge of their bodies, that they can say no, and that they don’t need to feel pressured or guilty about that.

Unfortunately we have had cases where our children have been hugged or tickled when they didn’t want to be and clearly had asked the adult (who thought they were being friendly) to stop. We now have a policy of staying very close to the kids when they’re greeting or farewelling others who might try to insist on a kiss, so we can intervene. What would be really great would be people automatically respecting all people’s boundaries, regardless of age! How scary it must be for a child to know that a bigger and stronger adult can (and might) choose to override their wishes and do something to them without consent.

If a child asks you to stop something, you stop. No questions, no guilt, no shaming. You just stop. This also includes non-physical interactions like games, jokes, ‘friendly’ teasing, etc.

Don’t laugh AT them

Kids can be quite adorable, can’t they? We sometimes have a little chuckle about their antics. The thing is, often they’re being quite serious and a laugh is off-putting and embarrassing. No one like’s being laughed at. I’m not saying don’t ever laugh around kids. How boring that would be! Kids are the masters of happiness. But before you laugh, check that everyone’s laughing together!

A child asking an honest and serious question that you think is cute? Don’t laugh.
A child trying their hardest to learn a new skill but looking a little clumsy? Don’t laugh (unless they are).
A child making silly faces at you to elicit laughter? Laugh away!

You get the picture.

Tell your stories

Children LOVE to hear stories about our childhood, things that have happened to us, familiar places, family members, etc. Tell them your stories! It’s also much less overwhelming to listen than it is being questioned. Start talking and they will likely join in too.

Apologise when you get it wrong

If you upset a child, just apologise. You would show the same courtesy to an adult. If you meant no harm and feel sorry, then say that. Adults are often embarrassed or offended when children refuse to play along or don’t respond well to them. They might mock them, downplay their feelings, get angry, shame, or even punish them. That’s really not ok. Children deserve to have their feelings and opinions respected. If you mistakenly upset them, apologise and try to understand.

I know most people think these things aren’t a big deal, and that they were treated the same as kids and still ‘turned out ok’. I’m of the opinion that the little things do matter. How we talk to, and about, children matters. If we want to change how children are treated in our world, we can start with how we treat them.

“While I don’t want to make mountains out of molehills, the truth is that many molehills a mountain make. That’s the way brain wiring works. A child’s experience, when coupled again and again with like experiences, impacts her understanding of herself and her place in the world. And so it follows that depending on how we respond to our children, they will come to either value their own point of view or they won’t.” –Jennifer Lehr

How we speak to children has a big impact, and it’s something we can all do to help end childism and treat children respectfully, as equals. We can each have a positive impact on the children we meet. It starts with us!

5 thoughts on “Language Matters: Fighting Childism With How We Talk to Children

  1. I’ve been waiting for this post. I love this.
    One of the best compliments I’ve gotten as a mom is when we were walking to our table at Panera: i turned the corner as my 1 year-old son was following me, I think I was just telling him where I was going and a young woman sitting in a booth commented “Wow! I wasn’t expecting someone so small! I thought you were taking to an 8 year-old!”

  2. Thank you for this! I do wonder if you have any advice on maintaining this wonderful attitude when your children do not always respond with the same respect.
    For example, when they don’t want to listen to you? Or when they insist on talking to you like a baby (their younger sibling?)
    Thank you!

  3. Lovely post – I’d be interested to hear how you gracefully handle any childism you encounter. At times I’m at a loss for words because it’s a sensitive situation. Thanks!

  4. Pingback: What Is Respectful Parenting?

  5. Pingback: The Number One Way to End Power Struggles - and It Works EVERY Time | Happiness is here

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *