Why It Is Important to Teach Your Kids How to Speak With Adults

While I love the many perks of technological advances, I’m not particularly a big fan of how it has been killing the art of conversation over the past decade or so. We used to have to so many opportunities to actually speak with other people, but between messaging replacing phone calls, self-checkouts replacing human cashiers, laptops replacing interactive classroom dialogue, and online ordering replacing in-store interaction, those opportunities have dwindled. It’s time we take the matter into our own hands.

One of the most common observations I have received as a parent is that I don’t talk to my kids like they’re widdle baybays whose Mama talksies downsies to dem. Even when they were itty bitty, I was never one for baby talk. Then when we discovered that my eldest had a (quickly-fixed) hearing issue around age three and would need speech therapy, I never swayed in my habit of talking to my kids in a clear, semiformal manner, and even took it up a notch to deliberately practice proper conversations.  This practice has helped both of my kids become pretty good at speaking with other adults from a young age: a skill that has proven itself important in so many ways.

For a while, kids mostly live in a bubble, surrounded by family and friends. Natural conversation tends to be casual in nature, with a shorthand borne of familiarity. Deliberately teaching kids how to speak with adults from an early age—back and forth conversations during which they both answer questions and ask their own in order to have an engaged dialogue—and regularly practicing it can give them both the skill required to do it well and a comfort level that will help them when the situations arise (both good and not-so-good). 

It’s Not Just About Polite Conversation

Yes, I like to witness the eye contact and good manners, but more importantly, I like to know that my kids can speak with adults when I’m not around. It’s hard enough being a kid, period, but there are a lot of situations in which they will feel overwhelmed and then need to approach or speak up to an adult. This can be intimidating if they never practice. It can go sideways if they never practice. And a lot of these situations are something we absolutely do not want going sideways:

  • They want to ask a teacher for extra help, and need to specifically explain what for.
  • They’re at a friends’ home whose parents neither you nor they have met yet.
  • They have overwhelming feelings or act out in the middle of a school day and need to speak with the guidance counselor right away.
  • They are a latch-key kid who may come across adults on their walk home, like neighbors, strangers, or a mailman in the driveway.
  • They witnessed something that needs to be reported to mall security or a nearby policewoman right away.
  • They are handed a phone and told to, “Say hello” to some adult relative who wants to catch up.
  • They are freaked out by the pressure to sit on Santa’s lap, and would like to suggest an alternative for the photo Grandma is paying for.
  • They are very uncomfortable with the directive to, “Give Uncle Johnny a hug,” and want to get out of doing so without causing too much of a scene. 
  • They are being interviewed for a job or volunteer gig.
  • They need a mental health day, and know that if they don’t articulate why they need it to you/both parents (versus just wanting to stay home for no real reason), you will likely say no.

So How Do We Teach Them?

Practice practice practice. Since there aren’t a lot of great examples in the media (have you seen a proper Hello/Goodbye during a phone conversation on TV recently? Um, NOPE.), and too many missed opportunities during our tech-filled rat race, we need to make our own opportunities to get it into their heads as habit.

  • Make the rule that each time they approach an adult, they go through a set checklist of your own making, whether they’re popping by next door to borrow a cup of sugar or interrupting your conversation with a friend at a gathering. Something like:
    • Eye contact
    • A greeting with that person’s name (Hello, Mrs. Smith)
    • One conversational question or comment (How are you today? Thank you for having me over.)
    • Then the eye contact and a goodbye before they leave them again.
  • Not only help them when needing to advocate for themselves with teachers and administration at school, get more comfortable when needing to ask for help from adults (familiar or authority figures) when out and about, and better understand the finer points of allowing yourself to be engaged and keep others engaged in conversation more meaningful than “How’s the weather?”
  • Practice making and taking phone calls with each other, giving examples of how to answer the phone, chit-chat, and politely end a call. Do the same with video calls, too. Recruit a family member willing to be the person they practice with while you watch.
  • Bring your kids along and model polite small talk with the grocery bagger, movie theater snack counter worker, librarian checking out your books. Then next time, tell them they are the ones who are to do the polite small talk before going in, so they know it’s up to them and can mentally prepare to do it. 
  • When your kid is speaking to you, especially about something important to them, put down your phone, look them in the eye, and don’t fill in the pauses to move the conversation along faster. Let them lead. Listen and secure your position as a safe landing space for them to approach you about what’s going on in their lives. Once you do, and they get into the practice of initiating conversations with you (an adult!) about stuff that might be hard to talk about (scary stories in the news, personal matters, etc.), that practice can carry over when the time comes that they need to turn to a different adult about something that isn’t easy to talk about.

While it may seem silly to speak so “formally” to our kids—and deliberately so when we could just shorthand our way through the moment—remember that every kid needs the skills they learn to be reinforced over and over again to ensure it sticks. And when you witness them putting those skills to work, don’t hesitate to let them know you saw them do so and tell them they did a great job. That positive reinforcement just might be the encouragement they need to nudge them into approaching another adult to self-advocate or help someone else out when you’re not around, and all that work will absolutely be worth it. 

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