Kids can be annoying and mind-numbingly boring, but they can also be incredibly funny and insightful. If we can get beyond some of our desire to tune them out—because holy fuck they talk a lot—we can get so much out of talking to our kids and others’. I have three kids of my own (a 7-year-old and twins who are 5), and when I am not overwhelmed by everything that comes with parenting, I am reminded how nice it is to talk to them. They are honest and ridiculously random.
Young kids don’t have many filters, and what they have to say is often worth listening to. But in order for them to let us in and trust us with what is important, they need to feel respected and that what they say matters to us. They gauge those feelings by how we talk to them.
Here’s how we should do it:
1. Don’t talk down to kids.
Talking to a child in a weird voice or talking down to them is like your racist aunt talking louder to someone who doesn’t speak her language. It’s insulting and kids know when you are making assumptions about their intelligence. Yes, you may need to use simpler language or explain a concept or event to them, but talk to kids like they are your intellectual equals. Assume they are capable of understanding the conversation. You will expand their vocabulary and their understanding of the world when you speak to them in an age appropriate way, but in a way you would talk to a friend.
2. Do get down on their level.
When I talk to the children I work with at my kids’ schools, I try to always sit down next to them or squat in front of them so we are at eye level. I am big on making eye contact when I talk to people, not the creepy kind, but it’s important to make a connection with people. Eye contact creates a give and take of information beyond the words we speak. I want people to know I am focused on them when we are speaking to one another, even when I am talking to a kid. Also, how frustrating must it be to always be literally talked down to? Kids might be smaller, but they shouldn’t feel small when we are talking to them.
3. Ask kids what they want to be called.
When I talk to kids individually, I ask what they would like to be called. Usually they laugh at me a little then they tell me to call them by their name. Duh! Sometimes they give me a nickname to use. Sometimes they make up a name. I always use the name they give, but I am mindful not to gender them. When I address multiple kids, I avoid using gendered language. In any group of kids, there may be one who doesn’t fit the binary of being a boy or a girl. So I address them in other ways like calling them kids, students, or friends. It’s just not necessary, but it does provide validation to transgender kids or those who don’t fit into the binary.
4. Be goofy.
Kids are funny. They make up weird knock-knock jokes that only make sense to them. Their imaginations are uninhibited. They are fearless thinkers. Most of their stories walk the line between lies and imagination, but I am always impressed by how free kids are with their thoughts. Encourage this.
Embrace the random shit they say—the other day a kid told me a duck tripped while going to the refrigerator to get milk. I wanted to know more. So we spent a few minutes riffing off one another, making up a completely ridiculous story. It was awesome. And today my daughter said this: “I want my gravestone to say ‘Here lies Eva, best farter in the world.’” I asked her what would happen if someone else put that on their gravestone too. There was no easy solution.
5. Be relatable, even vulnerable.
Remember when you were a kid and didn’t think anyone understood you? We shouldn’t try to solve all our kids’ problems, fix their feelings, or take their experience and make it ours, but when we show our vulnerable side to our kids, we have a great opportunity to show them we do understand.
When a child is nervous, sad, terrified, or even happy and overwhelmed with excitement, my knee-jerk reaction is to get them back to an even, steadier mood. But that takes away from the moment and from kids knowing how to navigate their emotions. Acknowledge what is stirring up big feelings and remind them that other people feel the same way in similar situations. Tell them you have often felt the same way. Even adults get scared and nervous.
My daughter was a mess before her first Little League game. She was paralyzed by anxiety and fear of failure. She knew she would screw up. She knew everyone would laugh at her for not knowing how to play. It was hard to watch her have such big emotions and self-doubt. I took a step back and recalled my first ever Little League game.
“You know what, E?” I said, kneeling in front of her. “I was shitting bricks the first time stepped up to the plate when I was a kid. I was so nervous.”
Yes, I swore—use your own language—but she laughed. For a moment she knew she wasn’t alone.
The best way to connect with kids is to play with them. A game of Would You Rather or Old Maid, kicking a ball around the yard, or building with Legos will provide relaxed situations for kids to open up to you. Asking my kids about their days at school is futile, but when they’re engaged in some playful activity they will naturally ramble about cafeteria drama and classroom dynamics. They tell me the little moments of their day that in their minds add up to either a good day or a bad one.
Communication is key to all good relationships. It may not always be easy, but talking about the big and little things with kids will lead to stronger connections. Those connections lead to trust and respect for themselves and others.