Professor Kinga Kuszak – Head of the Child Language and Communication Research Lab at the Adam Mickiewicz University
Agnieszka Urazińska: Do we know how to talk to children?
Professor Kinga Kuszak: It’s strange, but we often talk to children, chat with them, tell them about and show them the world when they’re small. And when they grow up a bit, we seem to think that talking to them is not that important anymore.
I asked my students how they recall conversations with adults when they were kids. What they gained, what they lacked. They are students of pedagogy. They took the matter very seriously.
What did they recall?
An often repeated, important conclusion was that adults often look at the child’s needs and expectations through the prism of their own vision of the world. But the visions of children and adults are completely different. Whilst we all look forward to holidays and to trips to the sea, for an adult, this is one of many trips – they know how to prepare for it, what to expect, what the sea looks like. Whereas, for a child who will be there for the first time, it is a fascinating unknown and then, a great discovery. Therefore, pre-departure conversations may be full of questions: what is it going to be like? what are we going to do? why this and not something else? how are we going to get there? If we go by train, and not – as usual – by car, it can cause another avalanche of questions, both before and during the journey.
And an adult should patiently respond to them.
If we listen and respond, a conversation allows us to get to know the child. It’s a very valuable experience. Children are demanding interlocutors. My students pointed out that when talking to a child, an adult learns humility.
In the well-known passage of “The Little Prince”, the Little Prince asks the pilot: “Draw me a sheep.” The pilot can draw a snake, but the Little Prince doesn’t want a snake. He doesn’t like one sheep because it looks sick and the other one looks too old. But by then making an effort and discovering the child’s new needs, the pilot is able to arrive at what the child expects. He draws a box. “The sheep you wanted to have is inside”, he says. And the Little Prince cheers up. A child’s perspective is completely different than that of an adult and we can only see it when we talk to a child.
And we must be very attentive.
Sometimes a child may find it difficult to answer our questions, but what interests them can be seen in the questions they ask. The Little Prince floods the pilot with questions. “What is this?” he asks about the plane. “Did you fall down from the sky?” When the pilot confirms, the Little Prince, against the expectations of the adult, reacts with laughter. It’s very funny for him. The child reacts naturally and spontaneously. Children often surprise adults. These spontaneous reactions teach an adult to speak in a way that allows the child to organise their world.
And they show that what is obvious to us doesn’t have to be for a child. We often think we know everything. Like the pilot who, after drawing a sheep in a box, offers the Little Prince a rope and a stake so that he can tether the sheep. The Little Prince is offended by the proposition. The pilot, who has the baggage of life experiences, argues that the sheep can go somewhere and die. “You can’t get very far going straight ahead” – replies the Little Prince.
This is an example of how amazed an adult is to discover the child’s perspective, and maybe even to learn something. This is an example of how divergent an adult and a child’s perspective can be, and the opportunity that exists for adults to learn from the views of a child.
If they know how to listen.
And if an adult treats a child as a conversation partner the opportunities increase. My students mentioned that they often heard “Go to your room, adults are talking” or the famous: “Children should be seen and not heard.” This is not due to malintent at all. Among modern myths, the myth of a happy childhood is especially popular. We are convinced that children should live in their own world, filled only with nice experiences. The desire to ensure their happiness becomes the most important thing. And this stems from the belief that a child is an incomplete individual that with age, grows into a full member of society. And that’s when they are ready to face problems. For now, we have to protect them at all costs.
And don’t we?
My students said explicitly how much resentment they feel because of being excluded from important and difficult subjects as children. “Nobody talked to me about my grandfather’s death”, “My parents didn’t talk to me about their divorce.” They said that these taboos were illness, death, parting, leaving, and financial problems.
Because these are difficult topics.
If a child does not receive an answer to the questions that bother them in a matter-of-fact conversation, they will search for it on their own and use their imagination, not necessarily in the best possible way. The worst thing you can do is to ignore your child’s anxiety – consider other things more important than what’s happening with the child. In “The Six Bullerby Children”, Olle has a loose tooth. He touches it during a lesson, and, of course, it puts the teacher off conducting classes, so she reprimands the boy, telling him to take part in the lesson and to pull the tooth at home, so that everyone could see the hole the next day.
Is she wrong to say that?
She speaks like an adult. She doesn’t want to waste time. But she leaves him alone with the problem and still sets expectations. So Olle comes back home with a big problem. Other children try to help him by proposing drastic solutions: tying the tooth to the fence with a thread and waving a hot piece of coal in front of the boy’s nose. This strengthens the feeling of fear, the boy’s stomach hurts and he’s very worried.
But everything ends well.
That’s Astrid Lindgren for you. But let’s think – we, adults, also sometimes find ourselves in a difficult situation where there are many ifs. And we don’t take it that well. Before an elective surgery, we want to know what it is going to be like. It gives us a sense of comfort, even if we know that it will not be easy. Some people’s curiosity is easier to satisfy, others will look for details on the Internet and then ask.
Is it similar with children?
Yes. We don’t need to flood them with drastic, in our opinion, details of a difficult matter straight away. If they stop asking, that means they have enough information. For example, if parents get a divorce and tell their child: “We will not live together any more, but we still love you and we will look after you”, one child will ask a couple of control questions, and the other will need to know every detail – will they have two beds, two sets of pyjamas, what about vacation, who will read to them at bedtime, who will pick them up from school.
And the child doesn’t want to hear: “Go to your room, it’s adult stuff.”
Nobody does. Because being excluded makes us feel helpless. Let’s not avoid taboos. Like all of us, children also want to know what is happening around them. My students pointed out that if we want a child to open up, it is important that we talk to them in the same way as we ourselves want to be treated.
So it is not enough to ask: “What’s up at school?”, “Did you eat your sandwich?”
No, it’s not. It’s best to encourage a conversation by sharing something about yourself, obviously adapting the message to the age of the interlocutor. If I talk about my joy, difficulties, ways of dealing with them, I encourage the child to share their feelings. I explain my mood and anxieties. Then both parties have the feeling of building a relationship. We have a feeling of familiarisation.
Like the one in “The Little Prince”?
The Fox explained it to the Little Prince beautifully: “Now you are just a little boy to me, like a hundred thousand little boys. I do not need you. And you do not need me. To you I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world.”
It takes time and patience. And we adults are constantly pushed for time.
When you ask the question “What is most important to you?”, adults most often answer that it’s their family, their children. But they devote most of their time to work and chasing what they do not consider the most important. The most difficult is to court what is given to us. Because we take it for granted. And we shouldn’t. If we don’t get to know the child and tame each other, several years later there won’t be anyone to talk to.
This everyday conversation sometimes requires effort. But ultimately, you talk to your child, the most important person in your life! It may be a few moments before falling asleep. Or on the way back from school. A good time to talk is a shared meal, if that’s when a family gets together. Where and when this happens is less important. What’s important is to show the child that we as adults are ready to talk and to make them feel important in this communication.
I used to have a special code with my son, who is already an adult. He said, “Mum, let’s go for a drive.” And I knew he needed to talk.
And would you go?
Sometimes it was late in the evening. I would drive in my pyjamas. How many important things I heard in that car!
And sometimes it’s tempting to postpone the conversation to a better time.
Because I’m tired, because there will be more time tomorrow, because we’ll always have time to talk. No. We won’t have time. The child is here and now with their problem. We don’t know what the next day will bring us. Who in December was able to predict that in April we would be trapped at our homes due to a pandemic? There is nothing permanent in life. That is why you need to take care of what you have.
Did the students really remember how the adults talked to them?
Of course. And they see how it affected their future lives. One of the students said how unimportant she felt when she heard that she was not to interfere in the affairs of adults. Someone heard “don’t talk when you’re not asked anything”, someone else “don’t show off”. They remember how much it upset them.
If we look in a similar way at the child within ourselves, we can avoid mistakes that adults made in contact with us. We can avoid words that chill one’s action.
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