Why children deserve the respect and attention we give our best friends.
June 20, 2022
One of the most wonderful things about preschool age children is their ability to be simultaneously bizarre and poignant. In a YouTube episode of “Recess Therapy”, 22-year-old host Julian Shapiro-Barnum discusses the complicated emotion of hate with young children. In one interview, a child younger than 6 claims if hate were a food, it would be “pizza on a dog” and smell like “a very bad fart”, and then promptly goes on to explain to Shapiro-Barnum that he gets over this difficult emotion by “letting my brain control my emotions to get it away”. How strange a place it must be inside the minds of children.
It isn’t always easy to talk to kids. It is probably fair to say that most adults struggle to follow the nonsensical meanderings of a 4 year old’s thoughts. In mornings or late afternoons, sit outside your house and you will see parents walking home from the park with their kids. You will overhear a toddler having an absolute meltdown over something like the slide not being blue enough, and you will hear a parent mumbling “uh-huh” and, “oh yeah?” while their kid prattles on and on about what squirrels talk about while they look for nuts.
The importance of being able to have meaningful conversations with your child cannot be understated. A wide body of research supports the idea that a young child’s social emotional interactions with parents, adults and other children help secure the necessary foundation for future academic, relationship and personal success. So how can we tune into children and give them the attention and respect that they need? To be sure, we cannot give them all our attention all the time. We can't even manage do this for our friends or romantic partners. We all have a friend who goes on about their latest obsession to the point of getting tuned out. So don't worry, it’s okay to tune out a kid sometimes. The important thing is that this should be the exception and not the rule.
One reason why “Recess Therapy” is such a charming show is because the host actually listens to the kids he interviews. He pays attention to what they say, and takes their answers seriously. He asks big questions (like “what happens after a whale dies?”) and he isn’t condescending when they respond with something outlandish like, “it sinks down to the bottom of the ocean in the midnight.. so little ‘vampod’ things come to eat it, it’s like falling food from the sky and they don’t have to eat food for a week.” Instead he leans into the silliness, and asks more questions that are either abstract or concrete in nature. He makes his interviews relatable to young children who are entrenched in a developmental phase of egocentrism where, from their viewpoint, everything of consequence is either being impacted by them, or impacting them.
"When you start to accept kids as deserving humans, you get the opportunity to have interesting conversations with people who see the world as a beautiful, fascinating, sometimes scary, magical place."
There are plenty of Blogs that will give you “10 Ways to Talk to our Toddler”, and any list you will read quickly comes to the this point; talk to young children like you would talk to your best friend. Of course, that doesn’t mean pour yourselves a couple glasses of Pinot and start recapping the latest episode of RuPaul's Drag Race. It means you should show a child the same basic conversational interest and respect that you would give your best friend. It's not too hard, here’s how to do it:
- Body language including facial expressions. If your best friend is upset about a colleague not sharing an important project with them, you show concern on your face and maybe squeeze their hand reassuringly.
- Asking open-ended questions. When your best friend is discussing their partner's confusing behavior, you ask them open-ended questions like “How did you feel when they did that?” or, “What would you like to say to them now?”
- Get on their level (literally). When your best friend needs to talk, you get on their level. If they're wilding out about some problem at work, you match that energy and then bring them down to 10 from 100. With kids, you need to understand their developmental level. What are their brains capable of processing at this stage? Meet them at that level and help them grow into the next. It also helps if you can literally get down on their eye level so that you aren’t talking down to them.
- Be silly, but also take them seriously. We’ve all laughed with our best friends while talking about something serious. You can do this with kids too. Laugh when they say something silly, but don’t stop there. Show them you heard them by answering their questions, asking more questions, and affirming whatever it is that they’re talking about.
- Listen for subtext. You know when your best friend starts talking about a “nightmare” they had where their ex-boyfriend showed up out of the blue and begged them to take him back? And you’re like, pretty sure they’re just telling you this because they want to get back together with their ex, but they want to see what you think about first? And your friend is obviously just scared to ask you directly so they tell you this nightmare story instead? That's the subtext. Kids do the same thing (although probably not specifically about their exes). Pay attention to what kids aren’t saying and address that directly.
- Show interest. Because it’s rude not to, no matter how old the person is. Everyone wants to feel seen. Everyone wants to be heard. Your best friend would call you out real quick if you kept giving her only “mhmm” and “Oh yeahs?”.
- Explain why. Your best friend is at your house and needs to use the washroom. He heads toward the main floor powder room that he usually uses. He doesn’t know the plumbing is out. You wouldn't yell, “No don’t do that!”, You be normal and say, “Hey the plumbing isn’t working down here, can you use the bathroom upstairs instead?”. Kids deserve an appropriate explanation as much as anyone else does.
When you start to accept kids as deserving humans, you get the opportunity to have interesting conversations with people who see the world as a beautiful, fascinating, sometimes scary, magical place. Talking to kids can be something like reading a fantasy novel, playing mad-libs and watching Star Trek all at the same time. Be prepared for the bizarre, the surprising, and undoubtedly tender moments of vulnerability. It’s easy to argue that talking with children is essential for their healthy development and future outcomes. Hopefully after reading this, you’ll also believe that talking with children will benefit your own development and worldview. After all, we could all use a refreshing new perspective from time to time. Like the kid from Recess Therapy, who when asked to explain the economy said it's when you, “go to the cinema and then you get some money from your pocket and then you just buy popcorn and watch the movie.”