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.


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!


May 1, 2017 at 12:16 am

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!”

May 1, 2017 at 4:13 am

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!

    Amy H.
    July 26, 2017 at 7:13 am

    Would love to hear this too! Eg, when a request is made as a short-tempered demand, how to handle this besides a request for better manners?

      March 24, 2018 at 12:08 am

      Maria and Amy,

      I have been in the field of Early Childhood Education for 14 years and I work hard to treat every child with the respect he/she deserves. I have a son who is 7 and have had many, many children over the years demand attention, time, materials, foods, etc. even though respect is modeled. Part of this is developmental. Children have a difficult time with impulse control and don’t always think about what they say/do before they do it. I rephrase the “demand” in a respectful way. (For example, “You’d like me to pass you the noodles, please?” Nine times out of ten they respond with the re-phrased question…”Yes, can I have the noodles please?” If a child is in the middle or the start of a meltdown, I try getting down on their level and acknowledging…”You’re afraid I won’t hear you/You’re afraid you will have to wait too long…” This almost always stops it before it starts. Then, I use, “I don’t like it when you speak to me that way. It hurts my feelings. Please ask me without shouting.” It’s ok to remind them that you have personal boundaries, as well.

May 1, 2017 at 8:12 am

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!

July 23, 2017 at 4:08 pm

I thought adults were morons when I was a kid.
Great article!!!

    Glenys Tabrum
    January 29, 2018 at 6:01 pm

    Me too, I used to say to myself “when I’m conversing with children as an adult please never be like that! Never forget what it feels like to be small “

July 26, 2017 at 4:28 am

I am so glad that treating children as though they are different developmentally has finally been given a name, childism. What a challenge childism presents to today’s little adults! When I was a little adult my parents treated me like a small child and didn’t let me do what I wanted. Because they asked me to follow rules and to even hug loved ones I felt so uncomfortable. All I wanted was my own way, that’s not so hard, but they wouldn’t do it! When they finally read an article like this one and saw the truth (with some help from my persistence and fits) they started treating me as an adult and things got so much better! I was understood even when I changed my mind all the time, never really sure if I had my very favorite toy or food. They gave me all the responsibilities I was ready for including challenging conversations. Now that I have grown to full size I have a great life since I am such an intelligent and well-spoken adult with all my early practice. I have found new ways to get out of showing affection to others so I don’t need to worry about those pesky thank you cards or lunch dates since I have developed my own sense of identity and some personal boundaries. I’m glad my parents let me teach them instead of the other way around about that stupid affection stuff. Thankfully I was born knowing everything I needed to know about it and my parents were eager to learn from me! Also I have no trouble at work as long as my boss does what I want!

    July 26, 2017 at 7:12 am

    Why are you so triggered by the idea of respecting children? Is it so hard to treat them like actual human beings instead of objects for your pleasure?

    January 24, 2018 at 10:32 pm

    It’s clear that you took this post personally and that it offends you. You must parent quite differently than this article idle suggests. You must also think that the way you parent is the only way to parent.
    In order to grow as a human and adult, it’s important to continuously learn new things rather than constantly hang on to old ideas. I’d you treat your children respectfully, they would also agree. It’s very immature to mock an article like this. You’re mocking someone who’s making a case for treating children with respect. Honestly, that’s sad. And may you find the help you need or the attention you never received as a child.

    July 28, 2019 at 1:39 pm

    Momofsix, I want to add a perspective to supplement Sara and Kerri’s responses to your comment. I was sexually assaulted as a toddler, and I learned from that incident that I had no control over my body; whatever someone older than me wanted was what would happen, no matter how right or wrong that was. I don’t think you want your six children to learn that lesson. I don’t think you want them to learn that it’s ok for them to treat others that way. Even if the touch you force them to engage in just an unwanted hug, you’re teaching them that lesson, just more subtly. As that lesson compounds across our culture it leads to what happened to me and to worse. Don’t participate in teaching that lesson.

Kira Reynolds
April 9, 2018 at 11:50 pm

I am so happy about this post! This Past weekend I’ve been trying to communicate this all to my husband! This is all so important to me and the biggest reason that I have switched from a curriculum to “self directed learning or “unschooling” in the middle of our first year homeschooling. I’m e to cited to follow your posts! Thank you!

July 10, 2018 at 10:54 am

From what I’ve experienced, the only problem with your blog is that the ones reading it are the ones who agree with it.. What I guess I’m trying to say is how we get people to understand our ways parenting when they don’t even respect YOU as the parent.. My whole family is offended at the drop of a hat, and while I don’t care, most of the time, and I stand up for my child when I think she has had enough or is being disrespected, the adults mainly leave offended and we now are seeing them less and less. Yes I know that our style of parenting triggers them, and I wouldn’t change what we do just to make them feel better, but how do you get emotionally scarred people to get over themselves (sorry i can’t think of a better way to say this) and realise it’s about the child, not about them… Without writing yourself totally out of their life forever.

    October 29, 2019 at 11:59 pm

    CJ, yes the ones reading this blog agree with it because it attracts those of us who agree with it, lol. I agree with it also because I treat kids the same way the blog suggest because I don’t know how to speak to them any different. My parents don’t like how I talk to my children because it’s “adult speak” and it’s not appropriate in their mind. Whatever. My kids have told me they appreciate the way i speak to them. I learned about the “touching” thing like hugs, kisses, and comraderie (sp?) gestures that my kids don’t like and have told people firmly not to do those things and the response I’ve gotten was, “oh you know I don’t mean anything by it”. I flat out said, “I know but don’t do it” with a dead serious look. Little did I realize how much that meant to my kids that I stood up for them. It was also a lesson for me to be more assertive in my own boundaries which my son has been trying to teach me since he was born, lol.

Sara LeMaster
October 5, 2021 at 3:37 am

I am almost 70 years old and I can still remember how frustrated and helpless I used to feel when adults “child talked” to me. I knew I was being condescended to, not taken the least bit seriously, and would not be until I was much older. It made me view childhood as a disease from which I couldn’t wait to be cured!

Johnetta Queen
May 29, 2022 at 2:07 am

I absolutely love this. I have been making it a point for years to speak to children with respect and as though they were actual, little individuals. They really respond to me well and seem to enjoy it. I always encourage other adults to do the same. They seem astonished by the thought but it needs to be normalized. I know I hated being patronized when I was a child. Children are smart and we treat them as such.

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