Cincinnati Family Magazine

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February 23, 2024

Eye To Eye: Teaching Kids to Talk to Adults

There’s something wonderful about the child who knows how to talk to her parents’ friends. Socializing children is not just about kids her own age.


Full2875.gifPicture it: You’re at the grocery store with your 3-year-old in tow. You see a friend and begin to chat. Your friend bends down and offers a cheery “hello” to your child. Silence. Your friend tries again to no avail. In your embarrassment, you make the excuse that your daughter is tired and continue your adult conversation. You’re frustrated and this is a friend your child knows well. Sound familiar?

Even chatty children may surprise their parents by responding to adults with blank stares or lowering their heads. On the flip side, a child may say something totally inappropriate to adults or their body language may be a major source of concern. Most of us have experienced such situations with our children. If left unchecked, however, a child may assume that her behavior is perfectly acceptable.

Teaching children to communicate properly is a challenge, regardless of whether they are shy or social butterflies. Becoming an efficient communicator is not something that happens automatically as your child grows. By making a concentrated effort, you can equip your children with communication skills beneficial throughout life. When a child is taught how to converse with peers and adults, she has a significant advantage.

Students often make better grades when they are confident enough to ask their teachers questions or share ideas. “Along with good reading skills, the child who has good communication and vocabulary skills seems to thrive,” says Carolyn Kovac, of Nashville, a retired teacher with 30 years of experience in a private school system.

The Right Start

Start early. Babies and toddlers learn conversation by listening. So, parents should talk constantly to their little ones. However, avoid “baby talk.” It’s cute to hear a toddler’s attempt at pronouncing certain words, but if families adopt “baby language” and pronounce words incorrectly, it will stunt conversational development.

When it is appropriate, parents should include children in conversations with other adults, but should help them keep their comments brief. Parents of young children are generally great for practice. They are accustomed to child-friendly conversation and are not as likely to get frustrated with your child or brush off her comments. Pediatrician Sonia Jotte, M.D., says, “While personality plays a role in how comfortable your kids are in expressing themselves to adults, parents need to stress exercising eye contact while speaking. Even if you have an introvert, basic courtesy in safe situations is still expected.”

Teach Respect

Part of teaching communication etiquette involves training children to be respectful of others. For instance, when a child receives a gift from someone, she should automatically offer a sincere “thank you.” Parents may need to role-play to demonstrate the proper response for receiving gifts, and be sure to address body language as well. Make a game out of showing children positive versus negative reactions.

For older children and teens, communication at large is easier than ever before, although it appears oxymoronic. Messages can be sent to the other side of the globe within seconds, yet face-to-face conversation seems difficult. Have you ever been talking with a teenager and, in mid-conversation, she begins text messaging someone? Although rude, it is common.

Sam Diaz, of the Washington Post, writes, “A recent Disney ‘Cell and Tell’ survey of more than 1,500 teens found that 44 percent use text messaging as their primary form of communication, and 28 percent say they have sent text messages from the dinner table.” Parents must establish firm guidelines. Instruct children that part of communicating well involves listening well. As they get in the habit of applying courteous behavior, a little acclamation will go a long way.



As children mature, teach them more sophisticated conversation skills. By 6 or 7 they should be aware of appropriate behavior when speaking with adults. Common slang may be fine on the playground, but we really don’t want our children addressing adults this way. The best way to learn is to practice.

Most children who attend church regularly or involve themselves in community activities will have an advantage when it comes to talking with adults. If children rarely attend in social outings, don’t expect them to speak efficiently when the situation arises.

Having guests in your home is a great way to provide children opportunities to sharpen their skills. Don’t feel pressured to always invite families that have children the same age as yours. There is also a temptation to wait until your children are older to entertain at your home. However, the experience and exposure at an earlier age will reduce the likelihood of a pre-teen who can only communicate on their level. Be proactive.

A little prep will be beneficial. Let your child know if she and a guest share common interests like sports or music. Adults usually welcome children joining in the conversation. At the end of the evening, parents should compliment children who live up to their potential. Though it’s tempting to mention examples of better responses during a conversation, too much berating on the subject may embarrass or hinder children from experimenting with different areas of conversation.

Stimulating Conversation in Your Home

Just as parents encourage children to read by having a wealth of reading material in their homes, encourage conversation by having positive communication in your home. If you don’t spend much time conversing with your kids, they may show deficiencies in this area. Homes lively with stimulating conversations allow kids to learn to offer intelligent input on a wide variety of topics.

Benefits of Success

Parents who diligently teach their kids how to talk to adults will discover children who love the benefits of their success. Ordering their own food in a restaurant or looking a new teacher in the eye while introducing themselves will give children a sense of pride as well as a boost to their self-confidence. Children are usually happier when they are able to answer independently without having to be told what to say. Older kids with years of practice in their conversation know-how may realize that adults take them more seriously than teenagers who stare at the floor and mutter. Regardless of the direction children take in life, communication will be an everyday part of it. When they find themselves closing a sale in corporate America or knowing how to express themselves to their spouses, they will be grateful to have such a valuable gift.

What about stranger danger?

Parents may find themselves at a crossroads regarding how they want their kids to respond to adult strangers. Some parents believe stranger danger to be such a threat that they instruct their children never to speak to adults they don’t know. Period. However, some point to the 2005 case of an 11-year-old Utah boy who was lost in the wilderness for four days. He claimed to see rescue workers, but he hid from them for fear they would “steal” him.

Many believe that it is important to warn children of situations when it is absolutely not appropriate to speak to strangers, but still think it necessary that kids learn to talk to cashiers or waiters, or ask for help from a police officer or other easily identifiable safe adult. Parents may even have certain codes for allowing their children to speak to strangers in their presence, such as a nod or a small squeeze of the shoulder. You must decide what method is best for your child.

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