Sunday, November 4, 2012

Wait, you mean I'm doing something unusual?

"Hey, Melissa, you wanna hear this?"
"Hey, Missa! Dess what!"
"Melissa, listen to my story!"
"Wanna know something, Melissa?"
"Dat's Missa dere!"

My days at work are filled with children who enjoy my company and want to talk to me. The ones who have a reputation for being "quiet" or the ones who only speak selectively often tell me long, complicated stories, and take the time to make sure I understand what they are trying to tell me. Almost every child seeks out a quiet moment to connect with me at some point during the day. This makes sense to me: my job involves building relationships with these kids, and I have a knack for understanding near-unintelligible speech.

The thing that surprises me is when children I rarely interact with (specifically, the ones in the toddler room) fall in love with me. They all are excited to see me in the hallway and clamour to tell me where they are going or where they just came from (usually "outside" or "the gym"), and many of them seek my attention when I stick my head into their classroom for a moment to talk to their teachers. But I don't see them all every day. And yet... I found out today that the oldest girl in the toddler room talks about coming to Daycare to see the director and... Missa. Not her classroom teachers. My mind has been boggling over this all day, and then suddenly, I realised. All those times I saw her in the boot room in the morning and greeted her by name (even though I never got any sign of a response), and all those times I said "Hello, how are you today?" when our paths crossed in the park or the playground, all those times I said "goodbye" to her at the end of the day and got a hidden, below-the-hip wave in return, all those times when she held up something for me to see, and I noticed and commented on it, I was building something with her.

For years, I've been the kind of person that small children really love. I am not boasting, and I am not perfect, but young children just really seem to like me a lot. It's been a mystery to me for a long time, but I think I'm starting to figure out some of the reasons why. I think the biggest one is this:

I communicate with them.

There's no big secret to communicating with young children, even pre-verbal ones. Which is why I didn't realise that the way I communicate with them is unusual in any way. Apparently, many other adults in the world seem to believe that small children are either incapable of comprehending or reciprocating communication, or that they're not worth communicating with (which is not to say that said adults are aware they hold these beliefs, or that they are acting upon them).

So. Maybe big people need some pointers on how to talk to small people. How to communicate with babies, toddlers, and preschoolers, Missa style:

  1. Speak to them like they are people, because they are. All people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, even the very young ones.
  2. Listen attentively to what they have to say, and respond appropriately. 
 That's it. That's it? Really? Yes, yes it is.

But what does it mean?

When speaking to someone, most of us follow a number of rules that we learned and internalised when we were very tiny. We sometimes forget to follow those same rules when speaking to babies or toddlers, but they are still important. When speaking to someone, one ought to:
  • Maintain appropriate eye contact. This may mean squatting, kneeling, bending down, or holding a child in one's lap.
  • Pause after asking a question and wait for the other person to respond. Even when you're pretty sure you won't get an answer (like when I greet a young toddler in the morning with "Hi Jenny, how are you today?"), it's important to allow the opportunity for one to be given. Parents look at me like I'm slightly off my rocker sometimes when I do this.
  • Watch the other person's reactions to know how he feels about the conversation. We naturally watch for nonverbal cues from other adults to regulate when it is time to change the subject, when the other person wants a turn to talk, whether the other person is confused or bored or even listening at all, and so on. Young children are perfectly capable of showing you those same nonverbal cues.
  • Use an appropriate volume and tone of voice. Like shouting loudly at old people, using a falsely enthusiastic, loud, high-pitched voice to speak to children is condescending, and they know it. They're people, not puppies. Now I don't mean to say that the kind of soft, high voice people naturally use when speaking to tiny babies in inappropriate, but it's not necessary to speak two octaves above your normal voice every time you talk to someone smaller than yourself. Also: Talking like Dora the Explorer doesn't help you communicate effectively with a child. It's okay to be calm and quiet. Kids don't need to be shouting excitedly all day long, and neither do you.
Effective listening skills are sometimes difficult to engage. Particularly with young children, we tend to respond a lot with "YEAH? REally? Uh-huh? Cool! Oh... Okay." without having any clue what on earth the child is saying. Instead, one could try to:
  • Maintain appropriate eye contact (again? still?) and indicate non-verbally that you are listening and interested in what the child has to say. This may mean displaying appropriate facial expressions, nodding at key moments, and using those verbal nods more appropriately (in a quiet, normal tone of voice).
  • Confirm that the message you are receiving is the one the child is sending. This can be accomplished by asking clarifying questions ("I see you're signing 'more' but you still have lots of cheerios in front of you. Are you asking for something different?"), paraphrasing what you've heard, or (especially in the case of children with poor speech intelligibility), repeating what you think you've heard. ("I go simming!" "You went swimming?" "Yeah! I go simming Mommy Daddy! Sayd!" "You went swimming and there was a slide?" "No. Asayd." "Oh! You went swimming outside! With your mom and dad? That sounds like fun.") I know this sounds kind of tedious, but it really is worth it. First of all, you're sending the message that you really care about what the child has to say. And the more you work to understand what the child is saying, the less you'll have to rely on repeating it all to make sure you've heard correctly. I sometimes still quietly repeat things that some children say when there are less-familiar people in the room, because I know that I have learned to understand them, but others haven't necessarily had the chance to learn that a "weederwodder" is a "police-car helicopter" or that "Uhdah? oihprnefkflfmoisdc Dide?" means "Melissa? Can we go play outside?"
  • Take seriously whatever it is the child is telling you. It can be hard not to giggle sometimes when a young child shares some erroneous information or tries out some big, new words. Yes, they are adorable, and sometimes hilarious, but unless the child is clearly telling a joke, it is inappropriate to laugh. If you laugh or tell a child how cute or smart he is every time he tries to talk to you, he is eventually not going to want to talk to you at all. Instead:
  • Respond with compassion and respect to the child's message. "It sounds like getting a needle at the doctor's office was a little bit scary for you." is a much more appropriate response than telling the child it didn't hurt, for instance. We are so anxious to make sure our children never cry or feel scared or uncomfortable that we fail to realise that they are entitled to their emotions, and the only way they will learn to deal with them in a healthy way is if we allow them to experience and express said emotions fully and appropriately. Sometimes, I respond to a shouted "YOU'RE NOT MY FRIEND AND YOU'RE NEVER COMING TO MY BIRTHDAY PARTY EVER AGAIN!" (basically the most dire threat a preschooler can think of) with "You seem to be really angry with your friend. Did you mean to tell him 'I feel angry and what you did really hurt my feelings'? You don't have to threaten him." This often leads to either a tearful tattle from the shouter or a desperate self-defense plea from the other child. But it transforms a shouting match into a dialogue without discounting anyone's legitimate emotions.
  • Avoid interrrupting, and if you do interrupt, promptly appologise. This is especially important when talking to kids with impulse control difficulties (because you are, in fact modeling desired behaviour when you avoid interrupting) or with speech difficulties like stuttering (because it is important to allow the child to deliver his message, and he will feel more anxious, stuttering more, if he sees you growing impatient or interrupting). Basically, show some respect, as you would with an older speaker.
Phew! That's a long one! I firmly believe that speaking to young children is something that needs to be approached with thoughtfulness and respect, just like speaking to adults. It really is worth it, in the end. You never know what a child will be willing to tell you if she can trust you to actually listen to her message.


  1. Thanks for the post, Cousin! Good read, valid points! Interesting too!

    1. Thanks, Shauna! I was actually thinking about a conversation I once had with your daughter when I wrote this, but the post was long enough without adding another tale... :)