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  • Anna Brix Thomsen

Why Adults Talk Down To Children: DAY 62

In the last post we discussed how children speak and act differently around other children than they do adults. In this post we will be looking at why adults speak differently to children.

Something that I’ve noticed within my work with children is how I in certain situations – especially with younger children – will change my voice tonality. My voice will be become ‘lighter’ and more ‘friendly’ but what I’ve noticed within that is also that it is more constrained and that I’m speaking only from the throat and not from the stomach or the whole body as my ‘natural’ voice tonality to would be. What is interesting is that I recognize this specific voice tonality, this certain way of speaking to children from someone in my past. I grew up with this woman who as a teenager and young adult had quite a ‘normal’ and ‘natural’ way of speaking. But when she had children, she completely changed her voice tonality to this high pitched ‘soothing’ tonality that I’ve also seen in myself. And now as the kids are growing up, it has become her ‘normal’ way of speaking. But within this voice tonality, there’s tenseness and like I said, it’s physically constraining for the body to hold itself in an unnatural pitch.

What I’ve noticed for myself as I’ve observed myself using this tonality is that there’s this underlying idea of being ‘gentle’ to children that especially women has a tendency to use – but in fact it is not a gentleness at all. There’s this shift that happens where the adult steps into a ‘role’ of “Now I’m talking to a child.”

This made me look at the point of how adults in generally tend to speak differently to children.

Last year I had discussions with my colleges about doing a project with our students about death. Some of my colleges thought that this topic was too controversial for children, saying that children cannot handle talking about death. But what I found within that is that children most often have no problem talking about death or similar ‘touchy’ subjects. In fact it is we as adults that have created certain taboos and ‘touchy’ subjects. It is us that have emotional attachments of for example being afraid of death. But often children have a much more commonsensical perspective on for example death, because they haven’t yet created any concepts about death being ‘bad’ or ‘sad’. For them death is simply when the body stops existing, given that they’ve understood this point for themselves of course. But the point here is that as adults we tend to try and shield children from the horrors of the world, not realizing that it is often in fact ourselves we’re shielding, indoctrinating our children to see the world the same way we do, assuming that death for instance is a horrible, sad taboo that shouldn’t be discussed – and so that’s what we teach our children.

Seldom do we as adults consider what we can learn from children or the very fact that we can learn from children at all. Instead we see them derogatorily as naïve beings coming into this world without any form of understanding of how the world works. This is a classic discussion in the academic field of education and educational philosophy where theorists previously thought that a child comes into this world like an empty canvass, making it the adults responsibility to ‘fill it’ with ‘correct’ knowledge and information about how the world works. But in modern educational theory, children are seen as born with capabilities and unique forms of expressions that it is the adult’s responsibility to facilitate and provide an environment where these expressions and capabilities can grow and develop.

When I as an adult use a certain ‘gentle’ but constrained voice tonality, I do not do it consciously. Rather it is a behavior and a way of looking at children programmed into me from when I was a child. I remember how adults would speak ‘normally’ with each other, but as soon as they turned around and talked to me, their voices would change. It was like they didn’t see me – or like they didn’t see me as a human being, like we didn’t have an actual real conversation, but more like a ‘pretend’ or ‘fake’ conversation – where they played a role to match the role they perceived me as having. Consider how this is something that we as adults do right from the moment a child is born.

Something that we do as adults when we talk to children is to either speak overly positive or overly negative to them, all done within an idea that we’re teaching them about how the world works. So we shower them with love and praise and fear and anger – making them exactly as conditioned to exist in emotional reactions as we are. Seldom do we consider speaking to a child like a ‘normal’ and equaling human being of flesh and blood with its own unique expression that is equally valued. In fact I remember as a child how adults who would speak to me like this were often my favorites and it was from them I found I could learn the most, because they didn’t belittle me or speak down to me – but instead allowed me to challenge my vocabulary and expand my perspective on the world. Now this obviously doesn’t mean that one then shouldn’t adjust and align one’s vocabulary and way of speaking when talking to a child. It simply means that we don’t have to go into an ‘educating role’ when we talk to children. And we certainly don’t have to shield them from the matters of the world to the extent we’ve believed. No – here we should rather look at our own positive and negative attachments to certain matters such as death and stop these reactions so that we can talk to children about it in a commonsensical and practical way.

A major difference in how a child sees the world and how we as adults see it is that children are not yet ‘contaminated’ by creating emotional attachments to certain words and topics. Therefore they have the ability to look much more practically and simplistically at things, for example seeing that war is stupid and unnecessary – which it is – or how it is unfathomablethat some children starve to death while we sit here and stuff our faces. Children get stuff like that. And this is not because they are naïve or stupid or narrow-minded. It is because they are in many respects seeing the world much more directly as it is in fact – while we’ve as adults created layers upon layers of deception, confusion, opinions, reactions and knowledge about the world – that isn’t actually real.

So when we now go out and speak with children, I suggest that we all make it an experiment to speak with them as we would anyone else in the world and like a human being existing equally here in the world. They might surprise us and we might actually learn something valuable about this world and ourselves within it.

I suggest listening to this series in context to what I’ve discussed here: Parenting – Perfecting the Human Race Series

I also recommend reading the following blogs:

Natural Learning Abilities blog series – a MUST READ!

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