Last Updated: September 4, 2020

When parents talk to children, they prepare them to become good speakers, and when they listen and read to them, they prepare them to become good listeners, readers, and writers. Overall, communication with children prepares them to become sociable, healthy, confident, accurate, intelligent, and productive adults.

On the other hand, when children struggle to communicate, they will struggle to understand others and themselves and may resort to extreme behavior and actions to make themselves understood.


How to talk to children effectively

Talking to kids is not only about opening the mouth and speaking. It encompasses the broader picture of effective communication, which combines listening, self-awareness, and thoughtfulness about spoken words and their implications.

Age-appropriate communication with children goes through a series of stages, starting at birth up until they are grown-ups. In the first year of life, babies are unable to talk and will use unique sets of sounds, gestures, and facial expressions (baby language), to express their needs and emotions.

They will actually listen to the spoken word, interpret the meaning, and start using them, one at a time, at one year and a half or thereabouts.

In order to talk to children effectively, and make them smart enough, it is important to do it early and correctly. Here is how to do it.


1. Connect with them

Make a point to connect with your child before initiating an active conversation. Or else, you may end up communicating with a child who is probably not listening at all! For example, your child won’t talk to you, when he is paying attention to the picture on the wall or figuring out the Lego on the floor. Your child could as well have other depressive issues that derail him from listening actively.

Establishing a connection involves earning his trust and attention. This may involve getting down to his level literally by bending over and sitting down face to face.

Avoid distractions such as mobile phones, unless they happen to feature in your communication. Don’t talk on top of your voice for this will make your child uneasy. A friendly talk will surely elicit a nice response from your child.

The point is, children will not know the importance of the message until the messenger shows it is important. Children also get to learn the value of face to face communication, a skill they will need to replicate during adulthood.


2. Make it simple and short

Make your language simple and short when talking to children. Young babies are not mature enough to listen to so much and for very long. Children communicate in small blocks and will become confused when too many blocks come into play. Lengthy sentences with multiple instructions are confusing and should be reserved for older kids.

For example, when you say, ‘Baraka, go get me my shoes in the bedroom, but first pull up your shirt and bring to me the pen in your hands’, Baraka will either run to get the shoes or bring the pen and probably forget the two other instructions.

Use short sentences, explain yourself briefly, speak gently, and use simple words. Complex terminology will make the child ask for its meaning, and in the process forego the instruction in the message.   

Also true, children don’t have the capacity to perceive and digest information in lengthy discussions. Assuming your child is not suffering from ADHD, the typical attention span for children is as follows:

  • 7 minutes for a 2-year-old
  • 9 minutes for a 3-year-old
  • 12 minutes for a 4-year-old
  • 14 minutes for a 5-year-old

3. Use positive language

The use of positive language and tone is acquired through example and experience. Children either imitate the positive or negative language depending on how the two are used by parents and caregivers.

By using positive language, you will spend less time placing emphasis on the negative words, and thoughts, and by using negative language, you will spend less time using positive words and thoughts.

Avoid the use of words such as ‘no and don’t’ because they do not help children understand much. Instead, use words that help them make the right decision.   

Often times, a 3-year-old child is confused about the wrong he has done when told ‘Stop doing that!’ or ‘Don’t run!’. He is incapable of understanding the wrong he has done the way parents do.

Yes, the temptation to use negative words and phrases is high up in our lips but should be cut down as much as possible.

Here are examples of words to use when you talk to children:

  • Say ‘Let us walk together’ instead of ‘Don’t run!’.
  • Say ‘Place the book in the shelf’ instead of ‘Don’t throw the book down’.
  • Say ‘Please use a lower tone, there is no need to shout.‘ instead of ‘Stop shouting!’.

Positive language extends beyond conversation with children. It must be practiced at home, with the neighbors, friends, and the community.

Positive language instills positivity, confidence, good behavior and belief.


4. Become an active listener

Listening is a very challenging yet very important skill to master when you are to talk to children effectively. The truth is, most of us are poor listeners because we talk too much. The few times we listen to others, we are probably figuring out how to oppose what they have to say rather than understand the message they are communicating.

It should not be like this with children, or with anyone else!

When we listen actively, we learn alot about children and make them aware we are with them every step of the way.

Starting at 3 and thereabouts children are amazingly honest and will share their minds freely. We can tap into this knowledge base to understand them better and certainly, talk better to them.

Really listening to your children is the best way to create a caring relationship in which they see you as being “in their corner” and as a base to which they can always return when they need support.

What is Active Listening?

We should, therefore, encourage them to talk, become more attentive, and hear out their non-verbal expressions.


5. Answer their questions

Sometimes all you have to do is sit back and answer the questions the children have to ask, and they are many.

Your typical child is capable of asking an average of 73 questions every day. The number is higher for those that are more curious and a little less reserved children.

See these examples.

  • Why are you turning on the laptop?
  • Why are we eating this food?
  • Where do children come from?
  • Why do people die?
  • Why are we not moving?
  • Why is your hair grey?
  • Why don’t we go back home?

You get the picture.

And because they have set their mind to learn, simply grab the opportunity and talk to them. When you cannot answer a question immediately, promise to answer it later on and make a point to do so.

Avoid pushing children away because they will learn not to ask questions even as they age.


6. Be an assertive parent

Different parents communicate to children based on three unique parenting styles: aggressive, passive and assertive parenting.

Aggressive parenting (read communication)  is described as hostile, forceful, disrespectful, and inconsiderate of the feeling of children. It creates a barrier between parents and children and communication is hardly mutual.

Passive parenting (read communication) is described as loving yet permissive, where parents fail to follow up on their guidelines. It allows children to become poor listeners and immature in thought even as they grow up.  

Assertive parenting (read communication) is described as the optimal approach to parenting where discipline, security, and boundaries are set for children to follow. An assertive parent is loving, firm, positive, and consistent.

An assertive parent is mindful not to allow extreme emotions to influence his decisions, respects the emotions of children, and yet firm on decisions taken.