Children Talking to Adults

by Amber Strocel on May 30, 2011

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My two and a half year old Jacob is very friendly. It could be because he’s my second child, and so he has benefited from my more relaxed parenting this time around as well as being doted on by his adoring older sister. It could be because he’s a Leo, the sign of nobility. It could be because I’ve never discouraged him from greeting friends and strangers alike. Or it could just be who he naturally is. But whatever the reason, Jacob takes it upon himself to personally greet every person he meets in his day-to-day life.

On the playground, for example, he often walks up to other children and introduces himself. It sounds something like, “Hi! I named Jacob!” His words are clear to me, but not everyone may understand what he’s saying or who he’s addressing. And so, often, other people ignore his efforts to strike up a conversation. I find it more than a little disheartening, quiet honestly, especially when the person ignoring him is another parent of a toddler. I can’t imagine that I would meet with the same reaction, if I walked up and introduced myself.

Luckily, Jacob is totally unfazed when people ignore him. He just introduces himself a few more times, until finally some notice is given. Or if that doesn’t happen, he moves on to the next person, and often meets with better results. It doesn’t occur to him, at his age, to wonder why someone isn’t paying attention to him. It doesn’t appear to lead him to doubt himself or question his place in the world.

Jacob and Hannah at the park
Jacob and his big sister Hannah explore the park

But as I watch my son go out and try to make friends with limited success, I reflect on what it’s showing me about the way we view children in our society. The truth is that children are not accorded the same kind of respect as adults. We don’t feel that it’s necessary to give them our attention in the same way. We don’t offer them the same kind of space to express themselves, and we don’t value what they have to say. Sometimes, even if we’re parents ourselves. Sometimes, even if they’re our own children.

One of Attachment Parenting International’s guiding principles is responding to our children with sensitivity. For older children, this includes showing an interest in what they’re doing. I have to confess that I don’t always do this as well as I could. I’m not always the best at getting down and engaging my children on their level. And sometimes I don’t hear them myself, when they’re talking to me and my attention is elsewhere.

I’m constantly striving to improve, though. I’m working hard to respond sensitively, and to provide my children with a safe and supportive environment to explore. And so I stand back and watch as they strike up conversations with children and adults at the park. I let them navigate social interactions on their own as long as they’re safe and happy. And I hope that other people will respond to them with the same sensitivity that I strive to display for all children. Because, really, every child deserves that.

Have you ever had the experience of watching other adults ignore your child? What was that like for you? And how do you respond when it happens?

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Amber Strocel (29 Posts)

Amber is a hippie mama to two, a writer, a dreamer, a student, an erstwhile engineer and a lover of chocolate. She lives in suburban Vancouver with her family and one very cranky tabby cat. Keep up with her on her blog at Strocel.com.


{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

Abby May 30, 2011 at 10:32 am

Children often have truly valuable things to contribute, and by ignoring them we discourage expression & further learning.

Plus it’s really just plain ol’ mean when adults ignore kids!

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Harriet May 30, 2011 at 10:36 am

My son was apparently separated from yours at birth. He is in the running for world’s most friendly child right now. If people do not respond to his incessant his and hellps, he runs after them yelling “HI HI HI..!!!!!!!!!!”. So heartbreaking when they stare blankly. I think they may assume he’s talking to someone else? My only response is “ADULTS GET A GRIP!”

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Mira May 30, 2011 at 11:29 am

My son is also very friendly and he definitely has interactions not only where he is ignored by adults, but also by other children. He is five and his speech and vocabulary are beyond his age as are the subjects he likes to talk about–Ancient Egypt, the Hindu deity pantheon–not your typical five-year-old topics of conversation. Sometimes children just don’t know how to respond because of the subject, but some don’t respond just because they haven’t learned about meeting and greeting, I assume.

And yes, it seems to me that adults ignore him because they don’t think it’s an important interaction. It breaks my heart and I have to say that I don’t know how I handle the situation. Often times, I just have him move on to something else and tell him that the person is caught up in his/her own mind and doesn’t know how to respond, that it’s not him. Sometimes I think that I notice him being ignored more than he does.

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Amber May 30, 2011 at 3:28 pm

I’m grateful that my kids don’t seem to really notice or be bothered when someone ignores them. It would be even worse if they were as sensitive to the situation as I am. But it still stinks, either way.

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Leisl May 30, 2011 at 12:13 pm

This happens to my son often too. I’m never sure how to handle it either. I hate it when I take him somewhere for something that he is interested in and he asks a question and the person starts out responding to him but very quickly turns their attention to me. I’m usually not really interested in the answer to the question but he is interested. In this case I will tell the person that they need to direct their response to my son.

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Mama Mo May 30, 2011 at 1:47 pm

One of my now-16 month old twins is like that. He doesn’t know a stranger, that one. At Christmas Mass, as everyone was filing back to their seats after communion, Jack was waving. At each person as they walked by, with big ol’ smile on his face. I watched, my heart dropping, as his smile got smaller and less sure and his waving slowed to a stop. No one even acknowledged him. No return waves, no smiles, nothing. Thankfully, since he was only 10.5 months old then, all was righted in his world when he looked over at his family and we smiled and waved back, showering him with all the love and attention he was offering us.

It made me sad, but it didn’t faze him for more than a minute. He still waves and says “HI!” to every person we pass by, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Eko mom May 30, 2011 at 4:27 pm

I see adults ignore my kids, and–I suspect other kids–everyday. Or, barring outright ignoring, misinterpret or manipulate what the kids are saying in order to entertain or seem smart to themselves or other adults around them. Or, override the original thinking of the children to be instructive, or impart their wisdom, usually unnecessarily.

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BluebirdMama May 31, 2011 at 9:13 am

Yes. That’s even worse isn’t it??

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Marny May 31, 2011 at 9:34 am

This happens to my 3 year old all the time. He has an amazing imagination and will say some really off-the-wall things and make up stories. Adults will sometimes (purposely) misinterpret his stories so that they make more sense to them and they crush his original thoughts in the process. I feel like saying “Just play along”!

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maggie May 30, 2011 at 7:36 pm

This is exactly what started happening with my son around age 2. It continues to this day (nearly 4yo), only as he got older, he would return to me dismayed (if not disgusted) that they did not “say hi back.” I have told him that it is in no way a reflection on him – and that he should just keep on doing what he does. I am a big believer that his fine tuned social skills from such an early age come from attachment parenting – which teaches compassion. I too, am dismayed at the young kids who ignore such greetings. My parents taught me to respect others. Kids today appear to be learning their social skills from each other (e.g., classroom, daycare) and not from their parents – or perhaps their parents themselves were raised without compassion -hence the cycle of dysfunction rolls along.in yet another generation. Sad. I, on the other hand, am happy to have such a friendly kid!

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beth May 31, 2011 at 2:52 am

My daughter is almost three and a half and she has been saying “Hi! My name is Zoe! What’s your name?” since she was about two. Other kids, older and younger, inevitably look at her with a dead-eyed stare. It breaks my heart, and I’ve taken to (probably unreasonably) saying brightly, “Oh! Zoe! Maybe this kid has lost their voice? Or maybe they don’t have a name?” I am so over it. This is part of the reason I would love to move to a more like-minded community where children are possibly more open, inquisitive and engaged with the world and everything in it.

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Tina May 31, 2011 at 8:34 am

My son refuses to be ignored. If people don’t respond in conversation (including me or my husband), he finds other non-verbal ways to get our attention. Usually lands him in trouble (throwing dirt, climbing on things). So our friends don’t ignore him, but they do comment on how aggressive he is. I don’t think he’s naturally aggressive, but I do think I have a performer on my hands. His personality screams “PAY ATTENTION TO ME!!!”

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Keely May 31, 2011 at 8:40 am

When children wave or smile or talk to me I feel honored that they wanted to do that….couldn’t imagine not responding to them. People ignore my children at times and I really just don’t understand. What children have to say is important too!

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Terra May 31, 2011 at 8:42 am

My second child, a leo also, is very friendly. She says hi and smiles at a lot of different people at the park or just riding in the cart at the grocery store. It breaks my hear that the majority of people look at her and look the other way, not even acknowleding her. She’s 20 months, she’s just learning to be social. I can’t understand why a person can’t simply smile at her, or say hello.

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Michele May 31, 2011 at 8:44 am

My 2 1/2 year old is very friendly. He’ll walk with us in the grocery store, and great every person we pass with a “Hi!” and a smile. Thankfully, we live in a friendly town, and the majority of the people respond to him, usually with a giggle and a “Hi!” back. Surprisingly, the rudest people we’ve encountered would be my inlaws. They will ignore him, and they don’t show him any respect. To them he’s “just a child.” :-(

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J May 31, 2011 at 8:49 am

People have definitely ignored my daughter. I don’t think it’s because they were doing it on purpose, I think they just cannot comprehend that the words they are hearing are coming from the mouth of a small child. She has always been extremely well-spoken and when people would actually listen they would look astonished – as if a dog had come up and spoken to them.

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Steph May 31, 2011 at 8:53 am

Honestly, before I had my son, kids used to annoy the heck out of me. I also used to be extremely awkward around children. The first baby I ever held was my own son. So while I do get sad when my son smiles at another adult and gets ignored, I also know there are plenty of people out there who will be happy to acknowledge him. In addition, I’m a loving, doting, attached parent who strives to give him a wonderful foundation with human relationships. I’m confident that being ignored every once in awhile by a stranger will not undo everything.

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da mama May 31, 2011 at 9:04 am

Ive had this as a debate in the family with the inlaws for a few months. They dont understand how I respect the voice of my 2 year old instead I should be “telling them what to do” instead of asking. I should treat them like a pet, instead of an individual.
These people talk over the top of my sons head when he tries to converse with them, even though his speech is that of a 4 year old. I usually step in and repeat what hes asking/telling them. Its heartbreaking, thankfully the people we meet otherwise interact with him, but family? ugh…

thank you. I thought i was alone

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Julie May 31, 2011 at 9:06 am

I see this a lot too and it’s heartbreaking. My son (three) is very sociable and loves chatting to people. I don’t really understand it when adults ignore children in this way.

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BluebirdMama May 31, 2011 at 9:13 am

Both of my children are like that and it is frustrating to watch adults ignore them or other children stare at them blankly. I know often the adults genuinely don’t hear them or understand their speech. In those cases if I am nearby I usually repeat what the child has said to the adult in a way that then brings the kiddo into the conversation. It sucks when I’m across the room or something and can’t do that…and I see my kid try several times, watch their shoulders fall and then see them move on to something else.
This also happens quite a lot because I think in general adults filter out children (like the google ads on webpages – we just don’t see them anymore) and it doesn’t even occur to them that the child might actually be talking to them. I agree that it’s a sad statement about children’s places in our culture. This also goes for how often children don’t get introduced to other people in groups. Ugh.

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Amy May 31, 2011 at 9:45 am

I have a toddler whom I love and could listen to all day, but on the flip side I can understand someone “ignoring” a jabbering toddler. The fact is not everyone is people person, much less a child person. You also have to consider that once you engage with a toddler they often continue to interact, which as a parent is great… you want to interact with your child and make them feel special and heard, but not everyone is that way; not everyone thinks your child is cute and cares to interact. I feel this is even more so depending on the social situation (say for instance on an airplane, I don’t want to interact with another child b/c I know I will be stuck doing it for the duration of the flight). Now with this said I do believe eye contact and a quick nod of acknowledgment is certainly the best way to go, but why be worried about other people’s actions? By your responses your child learns who is and that he is important and the best lesson that could be learned here is that you can’t control other people and you don’t need them to affirm who you are as a person by their responses to you.

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Sara May 31, 2011 at 9:47 am

Teachable moment. Everyone gets ignored sometimes.. Me, too. When I’m “not heard”, I’ll point that out to my sons (4.5 and 11 months old). When my sons are ignored I’ll talk to my sons about body language, cues, and the different reasons why sometimes people might ignore others rather than responding. I’ll talk about taking turns, etc. It’s also a good thing to have to reference when my son is ignoring someone that is seeking to engage him or speak to him. “What would have been a nicer thing for that person to say? Do you ever ignore someone like that?” It’s part of human interaction. Figuring out how to engage another person, reading that person’s cues, etc.

Helping my sons navigate those situations has made ME understand them better. I’ve always been socially awkward. Helping a one, two, three, four year old navigate what– to ME– is a painful situation and helping them understand/put it into context is good for ME. Seeing them understand, move past, and handle things better = awesome. :)

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Amber May 31, 2011 at 5:01 pm

I tend to be socially awkward, too. It’s actually uncomfortable to me sometimes when my kids strike up conversations with strangers. But it’s good for me, too, and it’s helping me to get over myself. I love the way our children teach us.

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Morgan May 31, 2011 at 10:26 am

I can’t help but smile when I see kids looking at me! I think that part of the reason is adults, especially without kids aren’t sure how the child’s parents will react. If they’ll say “what are you doing talking to my child?” I know it may sound silly, but that’s how I felt before. I wouldn’t ignore a child talking/smiling at me, but I felt uneasy about it. Now with my daughter, she’s a 6 month old who will smile at anyone and everyone. I can’t imagine what she’ll be like when she starts talking!

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Sara May 31, 2011 at 10:39 am

I noticed this when my son was just 7-8 months old and we’d take the train- he’d laugh and chuckle and clown and smile and do everything he could to get our fellows passengers attention. Not one smiled back or engaged him….it was so discouraging. I always smile and wave back when a baby looks my way- how else are they to learn how to be a part of our society? Now that he’s older and starting to talk more I’ve tried to go ahead and start talking to people he shows an interest in and try to pull them into talking to him.

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melany May 31, 2011 at 10:51 am

My son is very shy when it comes to strangers… I actually witnessed my best friend (who claims she loves my children like they’re her own..) completely ignore him.
She had put butterfly wings on him, then pulled out her smartphone…
It was heartbreaking for me. All he wanted was her acknowledgment and that was just too much.:(

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Timpani May 31, 2011 at 11:34 am

My son has been like this since day one. He’s 7 years old now and still talks to everyone, everywhere we go. I admit that before I had my son, I was one of those people who did not really talk to other people’s children. I felt nervous talking to other people’s children because I was afraid that parents would think I wanted to kidnap them or that I was a child predator. This sounds silly to me now, but I really do believe that our society has taken the fear of strangers to such an extreme that adults without children are afraid to talk to strange children in public, even with parents in plain sight.

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Rach May 31, 2011 at 11:56 am

I don’t mind saying “hi” back or waving to children who initiate contact. But as someone with 2 kids to watch and who isn’t very much into random conversations, I prefer if it stops there. Of course if the child keeps talking to me I do talk back, as I find it rude to ignore them, but often they seem to want a full on conversation, or want me to play with them (one girl in particular demanded I push her on the swings and when I pointed out that I was already pushing both of my kids she stomped her foot and yelled at me), or (as has happened twice recently) they want to sit in on our lunch and share our food. Now, some light conversation is one thing, but all of these others I find to be borderline rude and I wonder why they want MY attention so much…so I’m torn. Do I think it’s ok to ginore kids? No and I don’t do it. But do I think it’s ok to politely dis-engage after a few exchanges? Yes.

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Michelle Ireton May 31, 2011 at 12:37 pm

That just happened to me on Saturday. My 4 1/2 year old, who isn’t especially outgoing, and I were doing errands at an outdoor mall that has lots of families. Whenever a stroller would pass us, Jackson would comment on how cute the baby was and ask the baby’s name. He did that three times and not one adult paused, much less answered. Since I can’t always hear what Jackson says when we are out and about, I pointed out that kids are shorter than adults and sometimes his voice doesn’t make it all the adult’s ears.

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Sara May 31, 2011 at 2:20 pm

You know, with all the “stranger danger” that gets shrieked about, I’m not surprised adults don’t know how to talk to random kids, or if they’re “allowed” to… especially men. A man talking to a child he doesn’t know isn’t just a man talking to a child, he’s a POTENTIAL CHILD PREDATOR – CALL THE POLICE IMMEDIATELY AND CLUTCH HELPLESSLY AT YOUR HANDBAG IN FEAR! I know a guy who had a (kid-initiated… the kid just walked up to him at a public beach/park) conversations with young children, only to have a huffy-looking mom snatch the child to her side (she had been standing all of 20 feet away, so it’s not like the kid was lost), give him a dirty look, and haul the kid away lecturing him about “not talking to strange men.”

We’ve become so isolated. It’s not common, to be perfectly frank, for a kid to be *ALLOWED* to strike up conversations with random adults because they haven’t been hand-picked and screened by the parents. That nice looking retiree sitting on the bench in the park? Not a harmless older person who would love to kill 10 minutes talking endlessly with a preschooler about ducks, giving Mom and Dad a break from the incessant parade of “Why?” questions. Nope, potential predator. That high-school aged kid skateboarding downtown? Not a fun diversion for a kid who loves anything with wheels. He’s a teenage miscreant hell-bent on causing trouble.

So while it breaks my heart to see adults not engage my very friendly three year-old son when he talks to them, I don’t blame the individuals, really. We’ve somehow, as a society, decided that “strangers are dangers,” and that makes some strangers pretty darn uncomfortable. We keep our kids so closely guarded (at home or in child care situations), that they rarely interact with people they don’t know well, which means that we as adults are out of practice conversing with random children.

It’s all kind of sad, really.

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Sara May 31, 2011 at 2:22 pm

Ignore the grammatical errors… was typing/editing with a teething seven month-old attempting to eat my computer…

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Shelly June 1, 2011 at 7:15 pm

I think there can be a fine line between “friendly” and “socially awkward.” As a mom, I believe it is my job to help my son be an authentic being in the world, but also, when appropriate, teach him about social customs. Under 2 is far too young for that, obviously. But, at some point, it can be a part of the process. I have met older children who have had no social guidance and it is sad for them because other children react negatively. I am certainly not talking about needing or even WANTING my child to “fit in” with a certain crowd or be popular. I just want him to have acceptance and some of that has to do with him.

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allison June 2, 2011 at 7:26 pm

It really surprises me seeing so many people jump on this. Both my kids were early talkers, extremely friendly and born performers, and the people who didn’t respond to this positively were by far in the minimum. I would always respond to a child who waved, said hi or tried to talk to me, unless I felt this made the parent uncomfortable.

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Robert June 21, 2011 at 11:21 pm

A little late, but since this is out there on stumbleupon.com I’d like to comment. As a 21 year old male going into teaching, in several of my classes the men were told to keep I.D. and a letter from the class on hand when doing observations for the class. Working at an elementary school it was the same, being a man got me weird looks and forced me to behave differently than my female coworkers.

As Sara said we have a culture where men and non-biological children instantly brings up the question of pedophilia. There is also, as several commentators brought up, a lot of people just don’t want to deal with other peoples kids.

For me, I’ll give a polite hello if I don’t know the child and usually redirect them back to whomever they’re with if they keep going after that. Professionally, I’ve decided that I need to establish a relationship with the parent first, so there is no misunderstandings.

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