Does Talking to Adults Tongue-Tie Your Kids?

When my firstborn was just a baby, an artist friend introduced me to his children,  who were ages six and eight. I was surprised and delighted when each made eye contact, said hello audibly, and offered a handshake. They seemed so comfortable and self-assured that I promised myself right then to teach my children this social skill.

This incident came to mind after recently running into a former colleague and her first- and third-graders. The two girls hugged their mother’s legs and looked down at their shoes as they mumbled hello when I greeted them. Shy? Maybe. But having seen the same kids interacting confidently with their peers in other settings, it seemed to me that they had not yet learned how to talk to adults.

Was I wrong to have expected her children to have shown more social grace? I don’t think so. Is this expectation about our desire as adults to be shown respect by children? No, this is about what’s good for kids.

A big part of our responsibility as parents is to socialize our children. And most of us are diligent about it when comes to teaching our kids such skills as sharing and respecting the property of others. But the work of socializing our children isn’t really finished until they can talk and interact with both peers and adults.

Most children can learn how to exchange pleasantries with adults by the age of five or six. They can learn to look adults in the eye, say hello and goodbye, and engage in simple small talk. (Of course, this is probably not a reasonable expectation of children with autism or similar challenges.) Teaching our kids how to do this gives them a lifelong advantage. If they learn to be comfortable talking to adults, they will likely do better in school, asking questions and sharing their own thoughts with greater ease. These kids will sell themselves better in job and college admission interviews.

And let’s face it, we all worry about the proliferation of texting as a substitute for real-time conversation. Giving children opportunities to experience the pleasures of face-to-face conversing might later help them create a better balance between real and virtual communication. (Well, we can hope!)

We can help kids develop this skill by teaching them to do just three things:

  • Look up.
  • Speak up.
  • Listen up.

Look up. Making eye contact is critically important. I know a mother whose young son struggled with making eye contact. By gently, consistently asking him to “let me see your eyes” when they spoke at home, he eventually stopped looking behind her or at the floor.

Speak up. Most children who tend to mumble or speak too softly can be coached to speak clearly and audibly. Keep your reminders light in tone. You want to convey that talking to adults is easy and natural. Don’t work at it like a drill sergeant. Some kids might appreciate your help learning a brief script for a basic greeting. And be sure to always praise a successful effort.

Listen up. Coach your child to listen, too, and not interrupt adults conversing with him or her. When asked a question, urge your child to keep his or her answer appropriately brief.

And while it may sound odd, kids need to practice. Draw your children into dinnertime conversations, being sure no one cuts them off or ignores their comments. Practicing with friendly, familiar adults at home will give you a chance to guide or gently correct in private, not in public.

Let your kids order their own food in restaurants. Let them ask a store employee where to find an item. Let them pay for their own purchases at the register. All of these encounters offer great practice at looking an unfamiliar adult in the eye, speaking clearly, and saying “please” and “thank you.” The more practice they have, the more confident and self-assured they’ll become.

Many of us were raised with the idea that “Children should be seen rather than heard.” Fortunately, those days are over. Rather than teaching children to remain quiet in the company of adults, thoughtful parents today want their kids to have a voice—and to teach them how to use it appropriately.

Now, if we can just teach some adults how to speak to children!

Christine French Cully

Christine French Cully is Chief Purpose Officer and Editor in Chief at Highlights for Children. As Chief Purpose Officer, Cully’s focus is on growing awareness and implementation of the Highlights purpose, core beliefs, and values—to help actualize the organization’s vision for a world where all children can become people who can change the world for the better....