How to talk to (or about) people   Leave a comment

I’m reading a very goo book right now about respectful parenting.

However.

There’s always a “however,” isn’t there?

Even people who are wonderfully respectful of children make mistakes. I haven’t talked to the book’s author about the problem and I’m not telling you who it is because I don’t want people piling on this author.

The problem is in a passage about how we should speak normally to children. The author is making a great point — that we don’t need to oversimplify and should presume competence when we’re talking to children — but then hurts the overall point by saying that we should not talk down to toddlers as if they are “mentally deficient.”

Here’s why that’s a problem.

We say we shouldn’t talk to children like they’re intellectually disabled (ID). People with ID say that we shouldn’t talk to them like they’re children. (Actually, being talked down to is a problem for most disabilities, but the passage I’m talking about specifies ID with the phrase “mentally deficient” so that’s what I’m going to speak to here.)

Presuming competence is important no matter the person. Someone who has an ID should be spoken to with respect for who they are as a person, what they know (and what they might know), keeping in mind their actual age. Don’t talk to an adult as though they are a child; even if you end up having to simplify your language a little bit, you shouldn’t do that thing people do when they talk to small children or to adults with ID, where the voice gets higher and the words get shorter and the conversation gets stilted.

By the same token, a child should be spoken to with respect for who they are as a person, what they know (and what they might know), keeping in mind their actual age. Don’t talk to a child as though they are an adult; make sure you simplify your language based on their ability to understand you. And don’t talk to children in that high-pitched, unnatural cadence, either. They’re people, and they understand more than you think they do.

My son is 22 months old, and he is gaining language by leaps and bounds right now. It’s astonishing to me, the number of words he has gained expressively over the last few weeks. He mostly communicates one word at a time, but we can still have whole conversations. I just have to pay attention to context and ask questions.

For example, a common exchange after we saw Santa for photos before Christmas:

R: Shashi. (Santa)
Me: Yes, you saw Santa.
R: Up! Up!
Me: He picked you up.
R: Taw.
Me: You were so tall!
R: Bin, bin.
Me: Oh, did he give you jelly beans?
R: Yeah. Mmmm!
Me: They were yummy, huh?
R: Yeah! Tee!
Me: Oh yes, there was a tree there, too.
R: Yeah.

See how expressive he is with just one or two words? Most people who have ID can speak in full sentences (regardless of how they speak, whether with voice or AAC). On top of that, receptive language develops much earlier than expressive language, so the odds are pretty good that someone who doesn’t speak as “well” as you do does actually understand everything you say to or about them. I know my son understands most of what we say to him. (He doesn’t get our jokes yet, but that’s okay. We make a lot of puns.)

The author is making a great point with this passage and made a poor choice of words. I hope that it isn’t indicative of an attitude that people with ID should be talked down to (and I don’t think it is, I think it was just a mistake). Instead of including the bit about being “mentally deficient,” the passage could have simply said not to talk down to children and then explained that receptive language develops earlier than expressive language, which means that children understand way more than they can say. No accidental demeaning of people with ID.

This kind of attitude — these kinds of sayings — are ubiquitous in society. Take a moment when you’re writing or talking. Consider whether there’s a more accurate way to say what you want to say: one that won’t damage a group of people.

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