We don’t mean to insult children. Sometimes we just forget how smart they are. I always aim to talk to your children like they are regular people. Wait, right, they are regular people! If you use your normal adult vocabulary (barring any overly intellectual, technical, or mature terms) kids get great exposure to our language and will always be learning new words. If you think that something you said went over their head, you can explain or just ask, “Do you know what that means? Did you want me to tell you?” That’s respectful, not insulting. Some more suggestions for keeping your communication with young ones considerate and kind:
Allow kids to keep their dignity intact. When a child has a big emotional outburst or falls apart and “loses it” in some way, they may make a small effort to retain their dignity. If you don’t know that, you could perceive this act as rebellious or defiant. They may say something like, “I didn’t like that,” or “You hurt my feelings.” My son will often make a request in a tone that not exactly my favorite—“I need some juice.”—I refrain from commenting on his tone or asking for a “please.” This is the perfect time to let it be and move on.
Don’t be condescending. When children surprise us with their unruly behavior, we should take stock. Not necessarily of them, but of ourselves. Much undesired behavior is developmentally appropriate, meaning that it sure is annoying, but it’s to be expected. Stop yourself from saying things like, “This is so unlike you,” even if it is.
Set aside sarcasm, euphemisms, and rhetorical questions. These usually go right over young kids’ heads. Explaining them can keep you on your toes: “You’re right, I didn’t sound grateful when I told that man, ‘Thanks a lot.’ He wasn’t helpful and I was being sarcastic, saying the opposite of what I meant. I didn’t really mean ‘Thank you.’” The amazing thing is that kids eventually do absorb many of the hidden meanings in our confusing language.
Don’t refer to yourself in the third person. Saying Mommy instead of I or me is an odd habit we easily fall into, one that can be confusing for a child. Use proper pronouns even if your child doesn’t. They will actually learn more quickly this way.
Skip the baby talk. It’s our natural tendency to talk to young children in language that mirrors their own. The occasional “I’ll kiss your ouchie” or, “It’s time for night-night,” is fine, but in general try to use proper words and a normal tone. “Does my wittle baby need a baba?” doesn’t help a toddler learn the English language.
Don’t lie. Even I am guilty of telling kids that the toys store is closed when it isn’t, but as far as the big stuff goes, we do this to protect children, mostly from information we think they shouldn’t know or can’t handle. When important facts are hidden, children sense it and tend to imagine terrible things—usually worse than the actual situation. Adding to the harm, a child might worry that the reason for not telling her is that she is the cause of the trouble. Remember that young children are naturally self-centered.
Many people tend to speak to a group—of children or adults—with the lowest common denominator in mind. I say it's better to speak to the highest common denominator. If you have created an environment of safety and respect, one where there truly are no stupid questions, this will not be a problem.
I'd love to hear what you think!
Please comment on this post about ways you keep your communication considerate and kind to your children, so that you can enter to win an ebook copy of What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children, in the format of your choice: PDF, epub, or Kindle format. Sarah will be giving away one copy at each blog stop and will announce it on the comments of this post tomorrow. Be sure to leave your email so we can contact you in case you're the winner!
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About The Author
Sarah MacLaughlin has worked with children and families for over twenty years. With a background in early childhood education, she has previously been both a preschool teacher and nanny. Currently, Sarah works as a licensed social worker with foster families at The Opportunity Alliance in South Portland, Maine.
She also teaches parenting classes and consults with families. In addition, Sarah serves on the board of Birth Roots, a perinatal resource center, and writes the "Parenting Toolbox" column for a local parenting newspaper, Parent & Family.
As reflected in her book, What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children, Sarah considers it her life's work to promote happy, well-adjusted people by increasing awareness of how children are spoken to today.
In a busy modern life, while Sarah juggles her son, her job, her husband, her family, and time for herself, she's also aiming for: mindful parenting, meaningful work, joyful marriage, connected family, and radical self-care. She is mom to a young son who gives her plenty of opportunities to take her own advice about What Not to Say. More information about Sarah and her work can be found at her site: http://www.saramaclaughlin.com.