Are You Disrespecting Your Child with this Type of Attention?

This past weekend was the 4th of July, and I went to visit my mom and her husband with my 2.5 year old.

There were many people there from both sides of the family, and while I don’t blame (ok, maybe I do a little) them, I couldn’t help but to notice how unconscious so many people are about how they interract with children. I don’t blame them because the very culture we are all brought up in has a fundamental phobia and lack of understanding around children. If you look around, childism is covertly operating all throughout society from the way we speak to kids, to the way we educate them, to the way we don’t allow them to go many places, etc. In this post I want to address the way we speak to them. It is ironic because when people do it, they actually think they are being friendly or engaging the child in a respectful way, but they are actually mocking and belitting them because they are coming from the stance that the child is dumb.

The child being dumb may not be the conscious thought had by the other person, but remember, childism is unconscious, mostly. It is woven into the fabric of society. One (of many) exchanges between my bright 2.5 year old son and another adult went a bit like this:

*My son picks up a hat, examines it, and puts it on his head*

*Adult immediately gets up in his face and says,

“What you got there buddy?! You got a hat? You like putting hats on your head?!”

*My son stares back with a furrowed brow*

“Look! I got a hat on, too! Do you like my hat?! Do you have a lot of hats back at home?!”

*My son takes the hat off, throws it on the ground and walks away*

“Haha! Well, ok! Fine then…”


Upon first reading this you might think, “What’s the big deal? Seems like a nice guy trying to talk to your kid.”

And yes, I do not doubt the good intentions, but ask yourself, do you think he would have spoken this way to another adult who put a hat on? The likely answer is no. My son was simply minding his own business and modeling what he sees adults do (putting on hats without a fuss) only to get put under a huge microscope and have someone make a big deal about him putting a hat on. I often see that adults have this way of abrasively intervening on children when they are in the midst of things like exploration, thought, and imagination.

Another example is when my son was in the family room alone and totally focused on this helicopter toy. He was completely absorbed in this helicopter and it’s functions when this same adult walked in and exclaimed,

“You got a helicopter?! Can you make the noise a helicopter makes?! Can you go WOOOSHWOOSHWOOSH?!”

To which my son replies, “Noooo!”

I know my son enough to know that he isn’t being a brat to this person, he is simply objecting to his abrasive attitude the only way a young child knows how.

Don’t get me wrong. I think attention is a wonderful commodity and the anecdote to so many of the problems that arise with our children. The key is to undertand what kind of attention is helping and what kind of attention is hurting.

The type of attention that is hurtful is when the giver of attention (usually an adult when it comes to children) wants something in return. They want a certain response, like for the child to act cute or give them certain feedback. Normally,  I see the adult responding with something like, “fine then,” in a bitter way when the child doesn’t engage back in the way they desire. They come to the child with an agenda to entertain and expect to be entertained back by the child on some level. It is given with the assumption that they are smarter and the child needs their input. That what the child is doing in that moment isn’t “enough” and they need to add more to the situation by asking obvious questions and dumbing themselves down “for the child.” I see this in adult relationships, too. When people dumb themselves down for others, what they are saying is that they don’t trust the other person to “play on their level,” so to speak. This behavior is actually unkind because it doesn’t give the other person the opportunity to learn and grow.

Helpful attention is unconditional and without agenda. It is simply present to where your child is emotionally and open to their feelings and thoughts. It is available when they need it, and it is trusting that when they need it they will ask for it (assuming that they have been made to feel safe in doing so). It is not abrasive and it is not unwarranted. It is understanding that sometimes the most respectful thing you can do is allow space. I know that if my son wanted to show me helicopter noises, he would. Oh boy, would he! He doesn’t need coaxing or prompting. It is a sense of radical trust in your child. That they have their own built in system that tells them when they want you for things like play, presence and attention.

Think of it like this: What it your friend was walking her dog? Would you walk up to her and say, “What you got there, Sarah? Is that a puppy dog?! You like dogs? What do dogs say, Sarah? Can you say, ‘RUFF RUFF!?

I won’t even go into how someone tried making my son say, “magic words” before handing him a toy boat that he asked for. That is for another post, but it is important to note the many ways we treat children that we would never dare treating our peers.

“Hey Chantel, can you bring me my book?”

“What do you say, Tim? What are the magic words? C’Mon…what do you sayyy???”

I would never honestly say this to my friend. Tim. So why would I say it to my child?

I understand that some people will think that I am being extreme or thinking too much about this, but I ask that you really consider these ideas. Why do we speak to children so radically different than we do each other? Sure, they don’t fully understand everything that adults do, but they understand so much more than we often give them credit for, including the nuances in how we treat them differently. There are ways that you can speak to them in a way that meets them developmentally, without undermining their intelligence. They might not have the language to explain what is happening for them when we do this, but trust me, they feel it.

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  1. I usually ignore children until they approach me. Never talk to them in a child like voice and if they hand me something say thank you, please and goodbye to make sure I am a good example in politeness. I don’t hesitate to say “don’t do that it is annoying” if they are trying for negative attention. Unless I have a genetic relationship or a very close personal relationship with the parents I never tease or tickle, and only when the child start the physical contact.

  2. I somewhat agree….mostly disagree. We engage at a level we think the child is at. So should the adult have just not said anything? Or maybe shared with the child how his golf game went the day before? Also, that adult was a stranger to the child and being the childs grandmother, I think our conversation would have went differently because he knows me. Our conversation probably would have been more engaging , sharing hats etc. Of course we know there was no intentional disrespect – on the flip side, as a parent, I feel we are to teach our children to be respectful of others. So if your child is greeted by ANYONE, adult or another child, in a nice respectful greet, and the child sticks his tongue out and spits, it should be brought to that child’s attention that that is disrespectful and we don’t treat people like that. So, all people, big and small, are deserving of respect. However, NO ONE is entitled to it…..I feel respect, for the most part, is earned. If someone is not respectful of others, chances are they will not be respected. And the sooner each little person learns that, the better! 😍😘

    1. Sharon, removing babytalk doesn’t mean removing all talk – you could simply smile and/or wink with “I like your hat!”, or “Hey, it suits you!”, as you might to another adult. Or (perhaps slightly contrary to the article’s point, but I don’t imagine the author would strongly disagree), you can engage in a bit of playfulness to which children are typically more receptive than jaded adults, and tip/gesture with your own hat with a “How do you dooo?” or such haha 😉

      Either way, you’re treating them more like a person and less like an imbecile.

  3. I feel this way nearly every time we are anywhere. It’s just so prevalent. It’s also really hard not to notice once you’re aware of it. It’s sad, too, because those adults are also missing out on meaningful interaction with children.

  4. Abrasive is an unkind and inappropriate way to describe the interaction, it implies hostility when someone only has kind intentions and, further, the interaction that you are describing is that which is recommended by professionals to encourage children to learn. Rightly or wrongly, I would add. I know nothing about the author or their background but I see no supporting evidence in this article for her assertions and would be interested to know why she believes she knows better than everyone else (that sounds confrontational but is a genuine question that I don’t know how else to work).

  5. My 4 year old son gets strangers in his face multiple times a day, its so annoying, I wish people would just leave us alone sometimes. Some people are really kind and respectful and quiet when they talk to him, but others act like complete buffoons or like they are talking to a puppy. If a respectful person tries to talk to us, they usually do not get offended when he walks away and I always apologise, but the loud obnoxious ones usually get snarky and offended when he rejects them – to them I do not apologise.

  6. I agree with the sentiment that therebis childism.

    I considered your article carefully.

    The reason I am commenting are the bits about you wouldnt ask a friend to say please or thank you or say do you like pupppppies etc. I feel that your friend ought to already know to use their manners and therefore it is not your place to tell them. However, it is the job of their parent to teach them how and when to be mannerly.

    And further, how would a 2 year old even know he coukd actually make a similar noise to a helicopter? That adult could very well be opening an imagination door for a child by asking that question.

    My children do experience childism for sure but idt your son did in this case.

    1. He knows because he sees helicopters and watches helicopters and plays with his dad and friends who make the noises. It’s not so much the fact that the man was making noises, it is when adults prompt children how to play that I take issue with, personally.