Communication is obviously hugely important when dealing with young children, and kindness can be your best tool in connecting with them
When it comes to speaking to children, especially very young ones, how do you think they like you to communicate? How would they answer the question: ‘How do you like a grown-up to be when they speak to you?’
“If they talk to me, I like them to be a bit interesting and a bit nice. That’s how I like it. Polite and kind.”
– L (male)
By far and away the most recurring request from the children who have answered my questionnaire is for adults to be ‘polite’ and ‘nice’. Those two words outnumber all others, with ‘kind’ coming in a close third. The rest are way behind.
Even when you take into account that some of the younger children have only a limited vocabulary to express their emotional requirements, the frequency of those specific words is surprising.
I’m particularly interested in the choice of the word ‘polite’ – does it reflect something that is an innate desire, or is it learned? Is it because children are told to be polite so often, to “ask politely”, for example, that the concept gets elevated to number one on the wish list? It might be worth having a think about how often you use this word with your children, and what their perception of it really is.
There is also an unspoken disclosure that what they really don’t like is being spoken to in a way that is not polite, nice and kind, and that they know the difference because they are not always addressed in this way. Most of the parents of the children I interviewed were rather surprised at how sensitive their little ones were to this, and how specifically they could name occasions (or even people) where they had been spoken to in ways that didn’t measure up to their standards of polite, nice and kind.
If these are behaviours we are asking of them on a frequent basis, we are beholden to model them consistently ourselves.
Another popular word that came up in response to how children would like to be spoken to was ‘normally’ – which begs the question, in what kind of abnormal ways are these children being spoken to?! Some of the older children used words such as ‘fair’ and ‘rational’, and I think these help get us closer to understanding what’s going on here.
It’s my belief that what children are asking for is a certain level of impartiality, for clarity and for adults to err towards the non-emotional. I think what they are telling us is that when feelings run high, it freaks them out so much that they are unable to cope with both the emotions that are being displayed and the information that is being imparted, so communication breaks down.
There are times when they need to know they have done wrong or behaved inappropriately, yes, but we can be cross and still be polite.
Anger is not the only emotion, of course, and perhaps we underestimate the impact on our children when we allow our feelings to show, through tiredness or pressure, for example. They may be picking up more than we think, and this can lead to increased levels of anxiety and less of a chance of getting the response we require.
So take a deep breath and try to remember that politeness, as our grandmothers told us, costs nothing – but it can buy you an awful lot.
Nikky Smedley is a writer, storyteller, educator, public speaker and passionate advocate for the child.
As part of the How to Speak Child project, Nikky has been collecting interviews with children about how adults communicate with them. She’ll look at a selection of prominent themes over the course of the series, but to read more now, you can head to the How to Speak Child blog, at howtospeakchild.com/blog and join her Facebook page at facebook.com/Howtospeakchild.