Kids: They’re just like us. Except, you know, not really—they’re shorter and cuter, and they’re working through complex developmental processes—cognitive, emotional, and social—that determine both who they are today and who they will eventually become.
As Mo Willems—a kid celebrity if there ever was one—reminded me, “Childhood is an inherently difficult time.” Kids are new to the world, and they have very little control over what happens in their lives. To make matters worse, as a 4-year-old friend told me, a lot of grown-ups—even teachers—aren’t very good at talking to kids. When I interviewed her recently, she shared that, much too often, they just tell kids what to do and don’t even ask questions. “They don’t say, ‘Hi, how are you doing?’” she said, shaking her head. “They don’t say, like, ‘Who are the people in your family?’” Sometimes, she added, even when grown-ups do try making conversation with kids, they use voices that are too loud, or they come on a little too strong. An 8-year-old friend of mine echoed that last point: “It’s good for adults to be funny—but not too funny,” she told me.
So, how should teachers approach talking to children? Thinking through my own experience with children, which includes training and work as an elementary school teacher, and consulting a few experts—the traditional kind, as well as a few very thoughtful friends who haven’t yet celebrated double-digit birthdays—I’ve collected a few insights and tricks for talking to kids ages 4ish to 10ish.
Take Time to Understand Where They Are Developmentally
When it comes to addressing how adults misunderstand little kids, Erika Christakis, the author of The Importance of Being Little, articulates a fundamental irony: “I think we have a mismatch problem, where we both underestimate and overestimate children,” she told The Atlantic in 2016, explaining that when kids are provided with developmentally appropriate conditions, for example, they do not—contrary to popular belief—have short attention spans. At the same time, kids can’t follow rapidly changing adult schedules, or be expected to put themselves in others’ shoes.
When I interviewed Christakis in 2019, she called the unwillingness to consider the child’s perspective “adultification,” and she attributes many obstacles that children face in American society, such as packed schedules and insufficient appreciation for the importance of unstructured play, to this tendency.
Nancy Close, a child psychologist and assistant professor at the Yale Child Study Center, says that, though all children are different, younger children tend to be more egocentric—“either they are impacting something or something is impacting them”—and that the older a child is, the more able she likely is to be able to “hold another’s point of view with much more flexibility.” (For a thorough overview of typical stages of child development, the book Yardsticks, by Chip Wood, is a great resource.)
When talking with a child, adults should be aware of how that child situates herself in the world, and frame the interaction accordingly. For instance, a teacher who is touching base with two children who are in conflict should be aware of their developmental needs: Kindergartners might respond well to direct questions about how they feel, while fourth graders would likely be better able to share their thoughts on rule systems that are equitable for all.
Take Them Seriously—and Never Condescend
Kids are brilliant at picking up on tone and subtext; it’s an evolutionary necessity. Just as you’d never use a condescending tone of voice or baby talk in a classroom, react seriously to what the kids you’re talking to are saying. Keep in mind that even little kids can think about very big topics and consider them with great seriousness. Don’t introduce things that are scary—debates on nuclear disarmament can wait a few years—but don’t feel the need to stick to sunshine and lollipops either.
Seth Aronson, a psychologist and professor at the William Alanson White Institute of Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis, and Psychology in New York City, suggests that adults let children guide conversations about emotional or heavy topics—and that the first step to navigating potentially tricky conversations is that adults should be able to tolerate their own anxieties around talking about those topics with kids. Again, all kids are different: Let the child in front of you determine the content and register of your conversation.
As you’re talking, don’t rush to fill in silences—doing so can heighten kids’ anxiety. Phrases that you’d use with an adult conversation partner—“I agree,” “I see what you mean,” “Say more”—go a long way not only in furthering the content of a conversation but in helping kids feel respected and heard.
Listen for the Subtext
Children often don’t have the linguistic or emotional tools to say what they really mean. Fred Rogers had an anecdote he liked to tell: Soon after he entered a preschool classroom, a little boy informed him that his teddy bear’s ear had come off in the wash. Rogers realized that the boy wasn’t relaying a simple incident—rather, he was conveying his concern that something similar might happen to him. As soon as Rogers told the children present that it wasn’t possible for humans to lose body parts while taking a bath, all of them visibly relaxed.
While it’s important to pay close attention to what children are saying, or trying to say, it’s also imperative to take stock of their nonverbal communication. Close, the child psychologist, recommends that if a child is crossing his arms or pouting, for instance, you express your genuine reactions to his body language. “You might say, ‘You just said you’re excited, but it doesn’t really look like you’re feeling that,” Close said.
Give Compliments That Are Meaningful, Specific, and True—or Could Be True One Day
Children want to know that their efforts are recognized by adults. Compliment them on things they do (“I can tell you’ve been working hard on your drawing skills”) or mirror back the qualities you know they’d like to see in themselves (“It’s so great that you’re such a supportive friend”). Even if a child is not characteristically a hard worker, you can encourage them to work hard by framing their efforts in this way.
Be as specific as possible, and avoid praising the superficial (like physical appearance) or things over which they have no control (“Wow, you have such a big family!”).
Share of Yourself
Kids love learning about the world of grown-ups, so it’s helpful to let them in on topics they might relate to. Did you try a new breakfast cereal? Feeling excited about a new friend you made? Looking forward to watching a funny movie with your brother? Tell them about it—and be specific.
Rather than simply mention that you used to take dance classes when you were in fourth grade, for instance, tell them all about your ridiculous dance teacher, and the time your friend Stacy, who was always trying to get the other kids to laugh, pretended to burp loudly in the middle of practice. Kids like stories they can relate to—and good stories are made of good details.
Get on Their Level—Literally
Doesn’t it feel weird to talk to someone who towers over you? In my experience, it feels disconcerting, or even threatening—especially if the big person has a loud, booming voice.
When you’re talking to little kids, scooch down. Putting yourself on an equal footing physically can help create a comparable psychological effect—the kid is partaking in a conversation, not listening to a lecture. And when you talk, match their volume—as my 4-year-old friend put it, “Don’t be loud”—and use a tone of voice that’s gentle but natural, like you’re talking to an extremely interesting, highly intelligent person (because you are).
Use Tried-and-True Topics and Tactics
Every child in my life knows a lot about my very silly cat, Tabitha. Pets are a great go-to topic for almost every kid—as are favorites (colors, animals, songs) and things that are gross. And then there are the tactics kids love: when you let them in on a secret (“Hardly any kid knows this!”) or a joke (a wink will do), seek their expertise, or ask for their advice.
When I taught second grade, at the beginning of the day my students and I would share challenges we were encountering in our lives and give each other suggestions. I’m not at all ashamed to say that many of my most pressing challenges—how to motivate myself to fold laundry, how to go to bed earlier, and what to do when I kept forgetting my winter gloves at home—were solved by some very thoughtful 7-year-olds.
By and large, kids want to interact with people who want to interact with them, so relish the opportunity to talk with someone who undoubtedly sees the world quite differently than you do.