When I was growing up, my mom often told me that while she didn't do everything right, one thing she was proud of was the fact that she never talked to me like a child. "I always spoke to you like an adult, and it made you a critical thinker and eloquent speaker," she'd brag. And, not to toot my own horn here, but I think she was right. So, when I had my son I was determined to do the same, because there are things I'm teaching my son when I talk to him like an adult that I think are invaluable to his development and our relationship.
This isn't to say, of course, that he came out of the womb and I started grilling him on the philosophies of Sartre versus Nietzsche. More generally, I didn't (and still don't) have age inappropriate conversations with him — he's 6 and I'm still very particular about the media he consumes. (I don't even swear in front of him, and I'm not all that bothered by swearing, but it's just something I've stuck to.) And it also doesn't mean I didn't coo at him or ask him if he had to "go potty" instead of "utilize the restroom." There are, after all, proven benefits to so-called "motherese," and besides I'm not a completely pretentious dork.
But I am a little bit of a pretentious dork, and I think it's gone well for our family. Engaging conversationally with my son as an adult has taught him the following, and, like my mother, I'm proud of the lessons I'm teaching my child:
Language and communication are an amazing, powerful tool, and I want my son to respect that idea from an early age. The best way I can think to do that is engage him in a way that shows it's not just what you say but how you say it.
How To Ask For Clarification
I routinely use words I know my children don't know. And do you know what happens? They say "What does that mean?" and I tell them and then they know and within the hour they're using that word correctly. It's great! (Also, do you know how funny it is to hear a 6 year old use the word "dubious" in a sentence.)
I'm not saying you should talk with your child like characters in an Edith Wharton novel, where their every syllable has layers of meaning that have to be carefully parsed lest they be shunned by all of New York Society, but nuance is something that can be introduced earlier than you'd think. This also makes it easier for children to tell when people are condescending or lying to them.
My son is already pretty excellent at his use of air quotes, which are dumb when adults use them but are funny coming from a kid.
Wit is something that's tremendously important to me, and I want to instill that in my little boy the way some people hope to teach their children religion. The sooner he can engage in quips and word play the better, because it's good for his brain and, frankly, mine. After all, I mostly talk to children all day and, well, I want them to be funny.
Talking to someone like an adult means that a conversation is give and take. If my son is going to engage in the kinds of conversations I have with him (and he'll have to if he wants his damn snack) that means he has to listen to me, too.
That *I'm* Listening
This absolutely goes both ways: an adult conversation presumes interest on both ends (though, I'll admit, when he's showing me his various inventories on Legend of Zelda I sort of zone out, but I fake it really well for the sake of politeness). That I'm engaging him in conversation shows him (hopefully) that I care about what he has to say.
Seriously, you'd be really surprised what they'll pick up. I'm routinely impressed by the things that come out of my child's mouth, and it's not just from me. But I like to think that talking to my son like an adult primes him to engage more thoughtfully out in the world and pick up words that he wouldn't necessarily otherwise... so far that's been a good thing, though I'm bracing myself for his first f-bomb (though he's made it to 6 without saying it, so I'll take that as a victory, to be honest).
The Art Of Conversation
It's an important skill, people! And when done expertly it is, in fact, an art. I can't explain it except that you know it when you experience it. Certainly you're not going to have a toddler shooting forth Oscar Wilde-style gems of sly wisdom, but you definitely notice it becoming something that develops and improves over time. My son and I are at a point where we can legitimately have interesting and enjoyable discussions at the dinner table. I don't think that would be as much the case if we haven't been speaking to each other thoughtfully from day one.
This is another thing required of real adult conversation and so it's something I've been seeking to ingrain in my son from early on. I'm listening to him, he's listening to me, we're engaging one another. It's a wonderful way to teach someone to look at everyone as a person and not just a means to an end.
What I Expect From Him
When it comes to communication, I hold my children (and, indeed, everyone around me) to a high standard. That doesn't mean I'm going to trap everyone I encounter in deep philosophical discussions (my biggest fear in life is being the little old lady who talks too much to waitstaff who just want to go on to the next table because it could happen if I'm not careful!) but if you're close to me I'm going to expect you to be able to hold your own in a discussion and let me know what's going on with you, generally speaking. I need my children to know that they can talk to me and that they'll be taken seriously, and that I can be most useful to them when they clearly communicate what they want, need, and don't want and need from me.