How To Talk To Kids (And Get Them To Actually Talk Back)
Grown-ups don’t know how to talk to kids.
What are you saying? you’re wondering. We talk to kids all the time. It’s so easy! Right?
We ask the child standing in front of us in the line, “What’s your name?” “How old are you?” we say to the kid sitting next to us on the bus. And “What class are you in?” we ask to our friend’s daughter as we arrive for a party. Nine times out of ten, the child either doesn’t answer (in which case her mother scolds, apologizes or answers for her). If she does respond, it’s in a parrot-like, sing-song, let’s-get-this-over-with style.
Maybe there’s a better way. Maybe children are capable of more. Maybe they have plenty to tell us — maybe we just aren’t giving them the chance.
For the last five years, we have been teaching grown-ups in Dehradun how to talk with children. Our mission in life (well, one of them; we have several) is to get adults to understand that children will talk to us as long as they believe that we are listening.
How many of us are?
What class are you in? How old are you? What is your name? Oh, please! The same old, tired questions, the same old, boring gambits. The moment you ask a child what her name is or how old she is or what class she is in, she knows you have no interest in what she really wants to tell you.
We take a different approach to getting kids to talk. This is important with children who have special needs because so much of their communication development is in our hands. Often, as parents (and we always mean well!), we deny our children with disability their fair share of opportunities for communication. We answer for them; we don’t wait long enough for them to come up with a response; we assume we know what they want. We may be embarrassed (Masiji is waiting for an answer … how long can I keep her waiting?); we may be impatient (The bus will be here in five minutes. No more discussion: You’re wearing the red sweater today.); or we may just know best. (You love parathas with butter. You know you do.)
We all do it at times — but when it comes to how to talk to kids, there’s a better way, a different way. A way that assumes the child in front of us has an inner life, opinions of his own, and ideas to share.
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I tried it today in the bania’s shop. There was a little girl ahead of me in the line. She was holding a white plastic box with a big red cross on it, and she couldn’t stop looking at me. I was literally just about to ask her what her name was when I remembered a story Nishant (one of our recent grads) told on his last day of our Learning How To Talk To Kids course.
He and his colleague Rizwan (who has not yet taken the course – sign up today, Rizwan!) were working the Help Desk at the Doon Hospital. A man stopped to ask for directions and his little boy was with him. Rizwan, ever-friendly, reached out to the child: “What’s your name, beta?” The child instantly retreated behind his father’s leg.
Nishant, fresh from the course, said: “Rizwan! That won’t work! Comment on something he’s interested in!”
Rizwan is a quick study. “Wow!” he said. “What a great t-shirt! Did you get that in Paltan Bazaar?”
The child emerged from behind Dad and began to chat with Rizwan.
Remembering that lesson in the check-out lane, I changed mid-sentence and asked the little girl: “What’s in that box?”
She paused. I could see her sizing me up. Is this a grown-up asking me a real question?
“Kuch nahin,” she answered. (Nothing.)
“Nothing?” I asked. “So why are you carrying it?”
“It’s my doctor’s kit,” she said apologetically.
“Are you going to be a doctor?”
“So can I come to you if I get sick?”
“What will you do if I come?”
“I’ll do a check-up.” She spoke with authority.
“A check-up? What’s a check-up?”
“Well, I have to look in your ears. Then I have to feel your tummy.”
“And then? Will you give me an injection?”
“I do have a needle in my box.” She said it with a little bit of regret and a little bit of anticipation.
I happened to glance then at her mother. She was standing there looking amazed. “She never talks to strangers like this! Never!”
The secret lives of children. You have the keys to unlock them. Just respect. Ask. Wait. Listen. And respond when talking with kids. It’s not hard. All it takes is time and belief. All it takes is the memory of your own childhood.
The child in front of you has a whole world to share. You may be the one who assures her that her world is real, that her imagination is worth something, that her dreams can come true. She might really become a doctor. Or a waitress. Or a helper in a boarding school. There are so many ways to be in this world. A child who can communicate will have fun at any of them. Don’t limit her. Don’t put walls around his world.
Talk to her. See what he has to say. There is a way to do it; you can figure it out. It’s not hard. In fact, it’s fun.