Monday, December 01, 2008

Monday Mythbusters: short, not stupid

Just to step away from the whole family and motherhood myth busting, I just wanted to take a moment to say:

Children are short, not stupid!!

It is one of the greatest myths of today, that children are stupid. They get spoken to as if the lack the ability to understand the most simple words. People use the silliest voices and say the silliest things. Children are not expected to know or retain any useful information. It drives me (and often them) barmy! *warning, I may rant a little today!*

Now, my kids are bright, there is no arguing that. But they are on the brighter end of perfectly normal. People are astonished when I speak to Billy in a normal voice and using normal language and he understands and responds. He is 2 1/2 for crying out loud! Of course he can understand me! Christopher understands most things! When Christopher has finished his meal I often ask him "Would you like some more food?". More often than not he nods, sometimes he points to the exact food he wants. I respond with: "Yes please Mummy." and nod back to him to let him know that I understand and then give him what he wants (if appropriate). We have worked out this communication simply by talking together. Sometimes he shakes his head if he is full (that is rare though!) and once when I asked "Would you like to go to bed then?" he responded with a nod, got put to bed and went right to sleep. Because I take the time to talk to him and I watch carefully for his response, we can communicate. I know he knows what he wants, my role is simply to help him learn to communicate that want effectively!

We have always spoken directly to the kids in normal voices doing our best to help them understand because that is simply the way we do things. As a consequence, they learn to communicate quite effectively at a fairly young age. This cuts down amazingly on tantrums (doesn't get rid of them entirely unfortunately!) and simply taking the time to explain things to them has meant they have a much better handle on their world. Even when they are not quite savvy with vocabulary, the definitely understand tone. That is why saying "come here, come to Mummy" in a sugary, sickly sweet voice to a small child running in the other direction rarely works! The words may say "come here" but the tone says "I don't expect you to obey and I shan't punish you if you don't!". The same words said in a kind but business-like tone (especially if usually backed up with consequences) is much more likely to get results.

Often when people chat to me on the street they talk over the kid's heads about them. It is well intentioned, but really, why not talk to them? I often redirect the questions to the kids. For example when someone asks how old the kids are, I ask Erin. Children are rarely included in conversations and people are surprised when they reach their teen years with no conversation skills. Where do you expect them to learn conversation skills? At school with groups of other kids who have never been spoken to?

The thing that really gets me is when people have decidedly ADULT conversations over the top of kid's heads thinking that they don't understand. I am talking about discussing intimate details of their sex life etc. They may not be able to understand the exact details, but the certainly retain enough. Some of the conversations I overheard between two and three year olds when I worked as a child carer were, shall we say, enlightening. Again, they are short, not stupid or deaf.

Also, the 'cute' things they say are often their way of trying to work out their world. To adopt their lisps or mispronunciations into your 'family dialect' and try and get him or her to say it again for relatives, reinforces what was probably an honest mistake. When a child asks for "Wa-wa", rather than starting to call all water "wa-wa", how about responding with "OK, here's a drink of water"? Accepting their approximations but not reinforcing them is a positive way to help them get on with the business of learning. Imagine you went to a different country and you were learning a different language. Imagine your guides found your mispronunciations cute and started using them too. Imagine your frustrations when you tried to communicate with people other than your guides who simply could not understand your garbled speech. Now do you understand why three year olds throw tantrums?!

Now we do use silly voices and made up words when playing around in our family. In fact, we have done since before the kids were born! For example, we sometimes call sneezes "sneezles". Our kids know they are called sneezes by most people and can shift easily between the two words. We use silly voices when playing or reading stories, but easily switch into our normal voice when we aren't doing those things. The point is, we don't speak to our kids exclusively with silly voices and made up words. I once knew a family with seven kids who spoke to the younger four (who they referred to as 'the babies') almost exclusively with silly voices and made up words. Even the five year old was almost impossible for people outside the family to understand, not because he was stupid but because he never had opportunity to learn any different. He learned that talking in a silly voice got him attention and often made his family think he was cute therefore made them more likely to give him what he wanted. Why would he speak properly? Silly, "cute" speech was a far more effective way of getting what he wanted.

So please don't fall for the myth that kids are stupid, it does nobody any favours!

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