How we talk to kids


What the ever-loving, craptastic, holy heck! I’ve seen adults reprimand kids countless times before, but it wasn’t until yesterday morning that I finally noticed what jerks grown-ups are when they talk to kids.

It began in the library at about 8:00. I overheard a woman as she was tutoring three middle school kids. The tutor, her voice already dripping with disgust, sighed, “Open up your textbooks.” One of the guys, who looked particularly bleary-eyed and tired, was slow to react and the tutor said, “Is this how we’re going to start? Really?” She was exasperated already and the kids hadn’t even settled into their chairs. She began to drone out the text and asked the kids questions that had clearly been designed by the chairman of the board of a mattress company specifically to put people to sleep. Over the next half hour, she split her time between reading aloud from the textbook and complaining that the kids a) needed to keep all the chair legs on the floor, and b) needed to wake up and answer the questions she was sleep-reading from the book.

Later, I overheard an exchange in a classroom of early elementary age kids. The teacher, teeth audibly clenched, and with all the enthusiasm of a politician testifying before Congress, said, “I’m going to get some games for the classroom and I want to know what ideas you all have for what games would be good to have.” It sounded as if she resented the kids for making her take the time to explain this whole “classroom games” scheme. The kids, being of the younger variety, were pretty excited about games in the classroom in spite of their teacher and started calling out the names of their favorites. The teacher’s response indicated that this was exactly the kind of bullshit she’d expected. With a tone that virtually cried out that it was all she could do not to bang her head against a wall, she said, “You know, I do not have to get games for you!  If you’re not going to raise your hands and talk one at a time, I just might not get any games at all.” Rinse and repeat as the little kids quieted down, got excited again, and were threatened with no games again.

At swimming lessons it was more of the same. All the kids had to get out of the pool to put on life preservers for the drill they were about to run and a 5 year old fast-walked around the pool. I get that you can’t have horseplay or running at the pool. Safety is important. Still, that doesn’t excuse the way the instructor shouted the boy back into the pool to re-exit and slow walk it. After the lesson was over the instructor began handing out congratulatory certificates. My son, Tom, who always has to pee by the end of the lesson had gone straight to the bathroom from the pool. The instructor held out Tom’s certificate without looking up, said, “Tom,” and then, still not looking up, shouted, “TOM!” before I had a chance to take it and tell him that Tom was in the bathroom.

During the swimming certificate distribution, another boy, who looked to be around 4, stood and swung a faux-olympic medal around by the ribbon. His mother grabbed his arm, snatched away the medal, and shouted, “You’re going to hit someone with that!”

In each of these cases, the rudeness occurred in the context of doing something helpful or special for the kids involved. It was all just tokenism. The fake-gold medal, the swimming certificates decorated with smiley-face stickers, the special games for the class, and the extra help with homework were all designed to bolster self-worth, but were all undercut by a lack of basic patience and consideration.

I’ve done these types of things myself all too often. I’m impatient. I’m exasperated. I’m tired. I predict the worst behavior and then react to it before it happens. I’m not saying that the tutor or the teacher or the swimming instructor or the mom are bad people. Hell, there’s a better-than-even chance that they’re kinder, more patient people than I am. Some other guy is probably wrapping up another blog post right now based on something awful he heard me say to my kids. For one reason or another, it just really struck me today, for the first time, that even the most well-behaved kids get talked to this way every single day. Our collective inability to treat kids with basic respect provides one consistent message: you’re irritating and in the way.

How we grown-ups expect that others won’t be rude to us

I, however, don’t get spoken to the way kids do. People just…don’t shout at me. I honestly don’t remember the last time anyone spoke to me the way I heard literally dozens of kids being spoken to throughout the day in a variety of settings yesterday. Not when I’m at home. Not when I was employed. Not when I’m on the subway. Not when I make mistakes. Not when I’m a bit lazy. Not when I skip out on brushing my teeth before bed. Not when I lean back in my chair. I’m not a particularly intimidating person, but people don’t roll their eyes and grit their teeth and talk to me like it’s all they can manage to just keep from punching me in my big, fat, stupid face.

I also don’t remember the last time I spoke to another adult that way, but I probably raised my voice or spoke impatiently to my kids yesterday. I don’t remember because, honestly, it wouldn’t really stand out as unusual.

Picture this though: Imagine that an intrepid hero, we’ll call him Grown-Up Man, is waiting to get on the bus. It’s cold. There’s a woman in front of him who is not immediately boarding the train and is holding up the line by a few seconds. She’s probably just daydreaming or something. Imagine that instead of clearing his throat and saying, “Train’s boarding”, our hero raises his voice and spits, “Hey! Stop spacing out and get on the train right this second! You’re holding up the whole line!” The woman would probably give Grown-Up Man what-for unless she was too frightened of him. Others in line might tell our hero to calm down, or would at least give him a bunch of ugly looks. Now imagine that instead of being some grown-up woman, our hero is talking to an eight-year-old boy. That’s not even an interesting anecdote anymore. Maybe someone would raise an eyebrow and then go back to playing with their iPhone.

Here’s another one. Imagine you’re at a spinning class at the rec center. You’re pedaling away, but you really have to pee. So, you get off the bike and start walking toward the bathroom when the instructor stops everything and says, “Hey! Where do you think you’re going? Get back on your bike now.” ”Umm.  But, I have to go to the bathroom.” ”Okay. Fine! Maybe we should all just wait here until you get back. Come on! You’re holding up the class!”

I know that my circumstances, gender, appearance, and even dumb luck play a part in keeping me from being shouted at regularly. It’s certainly not that I’m a particularly competent person. I know that parents sometimes shout at teachers. Bosses sometimes swear at employees. Customers scream at waiters and cashiers. We can pretty much all agree that when that happens it usually means that the one who starts the shouting is being a total jerk. When it happens between a kid and an adult, it’s easy to dismiss it as just the way things are.

As a dad, I know that I’m a role model for my kids. I’ve always been careful to treat people respectfully. I say thanks when people hold the door. I don’t yell at waiters when they forget that I wanted them to hold the onions. But yesterday I realized that it’s not enough to just show my kids how I try not to be an asshole to the bus driver. I also have to recognize when I’m being an jerk to them.

Note: My thanks to The Good Men Project for publishing this post and to those who commented on it or shared it after seeing it there!


5 thoughts on “How we talk to kids

  1. Very sobering, indeed. It is all about respect for each other, regardless of age…..or anything else. Just plain respect.

  2. I really enjoy your writing and insight. I am a counselor in a private school in Cairo and I was wondering if I can share this?

    1. Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed it. You’re more than welcome to share, just include attribution to afamilyinthecity.com, please.

  3. Have been missing your blog so was excited to see this. Sadly, I notice the same things. Drizzles ma schnizzle, it does. I, more often than not, interject my own brand of perspective..usually in a kind way..yet state the obvious in the hopes of a “hero” or “tutor” or “instructor” waking up and possibly opining that maybe they shouldn’t be working with children (or people in general, for that matter) if they do not love the time spent doing it and all the excitement and unpredictability that comes with it. Next time, raise your hand before you hop off that bike or maybe a Texas-Cath is in order so you won’t get reprimanded. :)

    1. Joellen, I think from now on I’m just going to start telling rude people that they’re drizzling ma schnizzle. I may need to incite rudeness just to get a chance to say it more often!

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