“You’re very quiet.”
“Cat got your tongue?”
“You can talk to me, you know. I won’t bite.”
“Don’t you want to play with all the other kids?”
“Someday you’ll come out of your shell.”
“You’re very shy.”
“You should smile more.”
“You’re so serious. Don’t you want to have fun?”
“Are you trying to hide in the corner?”
“You’re so quiet I forgot you were even there!”
These ten phrases are ones that quiet children hear all the time (and quiet adults, too.) The words seem pretty innocuous on the surface, and they’re usually said with a smile by well-meaning adults, but the effect of these words reaches far deeper than most people realize.
Most of the time, I think people really do mean well when they say things like this. Their intent is to try to engage the child, to draw them into the conversation or to try to make the child smile or laugh. Unfortunately, though, 99% of the time this ends up having the opposite effect. Rather than becoming the bubbly, chatty little ray of sunshine that everyone is hoping for, the child usually becomes even quieter.
When he sees all of the other adults looking at him expectantly, the child feels the pressure of them all waiting for him to say something funny or cute, and his mind goes completely blank and he can’t think of anything to say even if his life depended on it.
And, over time, when children experience this again and again, they eventually start to feel like something must be wrong with them. Like they can never speak enough or smile enough or be fun enough to make other people happy. And, as much as they might try to be more talkative and outgoing, it will never be enough.
The Number One Thing to Avoid
The main thing to avoid when talking to a quiet child is drawing attention to his quietness, especially in public. Even one-on-one, it’s really not ideal to point out how quiet a child is being, but it’s especially important to avoid when other people are around. Drawing attention to a child’s quietness usually doesn’t accomplish anything except to make the child feel self-conscious about his quietness.
Not all of those ten things are necessarily bad things to say either, of course. It really all depends on the child, on the circumstances, and especially on the way that they are said. There’s a big difference between saying a child is quiet because you’ve noticed that they seem quieter than usual and you’re concerned something might be wrong and calling a child quiet because their lack of conversation seems like a flaw that needs to be fixed. And children can pick up on the difference, especially quiet, observant children.
But if you really feel like it’s important to mention something about a child’s quiet nature, it’s best to do so later in private rather than right in the moment in front of the group.
What to Say Instead
Sometimes it can be hard to know what to say to a quiet child, especially if you weren’t ever one yourself. If you’re an extroverted, talkative person by nature, it can seem strange to see children acting so quiet and serious and unchildlike (although if you took a peek inside their playful, imaginative minds, you’d see a different story altogether!)
Since quiet children often receive the message that they need to try to “fix” their quiet nature, one of the best things to do is to find ways to comment on the good qualities that go along with being a quiet person. Let them know what parts of their quiet nature are traits that you think are really valuable.
Here a just a few ideas of things to say to a quieter child (depending on the child’s age, personality, and the situation, of course):
“You’re a good listener.”
“You’re very observant.”
“You’re good at noticing things.”
“I’m glad you’re here.”
“I like your _______” or “I like the way you did _______”
(Commenting a child’s toy or hobby or a project they did for school is a way to acknowledge their presence and let them know you’re interested in them without drawing attention to their quietness. It also gives them the opportunity to tell you more if they feel comfortable or, if not, they can simply say “thank you” without feeling put on the spot to think of things to say.)
“You’re welcome to join in anytime you want, but it’s ok if you want to watch for a little while too.”
I’ve noticed a lot when working with different children’s groups at my church that there are almost always one or two quieter children that hang back at first, watching the other children, and almost every time one of the adults will say something like “Don’t you want to come play with everyone else?” Which isn’t really a bad thing to say, but a lot of times there seems to be an implied “you really should want to jump right in and play and there’s something kind of wrong if you don’t want to.” Even if it isn’t meant that way, that’s usually the way it seems to come across, and that’s the way the child will eventually start to feel about their natural inclination to step back and observe first before joining in. The message we want to try to convey is that we’re glad the child is here and that he’s welcome to join in whenever he feels ready, but that’s it’s perfectly ok if he wants to wait a few more minutes, too.
For some other tips about how to interact with quieter children, a couple of really helpful books are The Child Whisperer and The Highly Sensitive Child.
What other phrases have I missed? If you have any other ideas for what to say (or not to say) to a quiet child, let us know in the comments!
First of all, I love your blogs so much!! And thank you for this thoughtful article – I feel like you literally described my childhood. I heard all of those comments, and a couple more. “Can’t you talk / Don’t you know how to talk??”, and the joke, “Whoa, we’ve got a chatterbox over here!” were frequent ones said by bullies and well-intentioned people, respectively.
I felt like the only quiet person in school at the time, and that I was fundamentally flawed because I didn’t fit the extroverted ideal promoted by society. It’s such a relief to know how many others experienced the same things. The suggestions you gave for how to work more effectively with quiet / HSP children are spot-on – it would’ve made all the difference in school to have teachers who followed his advice! 🙂