open a hailing frequency

Contributed by Frank Maier

Lieutenant Uhura, open a hailing frequency.

And ya probably better activate the Universal Translator.

Ronnie asked me to write a post about how I communicate with kids better than most adults do. Well, huh. I’ve never really thought of myself in those terms. Am I really better at talking to younger people than most other adults? If so, how? Why? What do I do that differs from other adults when talking with kids? To write about this topic, I had to think about the parameters of it from my perspective, others’ perspectives, and children’s perspectives. Here’s what I came up with.

Don’t be somebody a kid would feel leery about. Be their equal.

One thing I thought of is the simple physicality of communication. As a short person, I find it difficult to have a prolonged conversation with someone who’s, let’s say, 6’6”. The simple physicality of it begins to have a negative effect. To a child, especially a small one, adults are all about 10’10”. Even though I’m short to begin with, I bend down or even squat to be at a more equal level with the kid I’m talking to.

So, I think that’s actually a factor. I speak to them at a physically-equal level, or as close as I can get, rather than looming over them like an ancient god with hair-trigger emotions and awful (awe-full) powers. Because, really, isn’t that what adults are in relation to kids? They’re dangerously powerful beings with seemingly-unknowable triggers who will reward or (more likely) punish you according to some indecipherable parameters. Unpredictable godlings. Ya gotta be leery of ‘em.

Don’t be somebody who makes a kid feel like a lesser creature. Be their equal.

A second factor, at a simplistic level, is talking down to them, psychologically in this case rather than physically as in the previous one. I never use that tone of voice to/with any person, whatever their age. You know the one I mean – artificially chirpy and upbeat and speaking a little slowly, like you’d talk to a dog who’s entertaining you. Don’t do it to old people either. Somehow, to me, that’s even ruder than doing to kids. But make no mistake, it’s still completely rude to do it to kids.

Don’t make a kid feel like they’re talking to someone who’d fail the Turing test. Be their equal.

Be honest. That word is kinda fuzzy so let me discuss what I mean. Many adults tend to be not really interested in the conversation generally and specifically in what the kid is saying, and they embrace a generic low-level kind of “unh-huh” response to whatever the kid says.

“I like turtles!”


“I love it when mom takes me to the park!”


Howzabout an actual interaction instead of a dismissive noncomment? Tell the kid that you like turtles, too. Or that you don’t! It’s ok to disagree in a companionable way. Even if you don’t, you can still then ask why s/he does and have a discussion (conversation!) about turtles.

Don’t be all stiff and “adult.” Be their equal.

Smile. If you genuinely feel it. Don’t pretend. That’s another variant of that fake chirpy-voice thing and kids (or anybody) can see through that like Superman looking through cheesecloth. If you’re genuinely interacting with a kid, like you would with an adult friend, you’ll have many opportunities to smile. If you don’t, well, maybe that’s why you’re (generic “you”) not very good at conversing with younger folks. Or anybody?

Don’t be an outside observer to your own conversation, be in it. Be their equal.

Be an equal partner in the conversation, not an adult interacting with a child. Tell them what you think, how you feel, what amazes you and what disgusts you, what excites you and makes you want to do that wonderful thing. And, given that you have had more actual life experience than they have, tell them about the fabulous thing that excited you so much that you actually pursued it and how great that was.

Variations on a theme: Be their equal.

So what’s the summary here?

I am absolutely no expert and, like I said at the start, I don’t think of myself as being especially good at conversing with younger folks. I just talk to people, whatever their age.

Editor's note: Maybe that's the ticket! For more from and about Frank, view his author profile here.
Photo of Tobias and Linnea, credit: Beatrice Mantovani