Encouraging public speaking in children

Many chldren are afraid to speak in a public forum. But, public speaking is a skill that will prove beneficial for your child at all times. Here's how you can encourage your child do it without fear.

By Meera Shivashankar

Encouraging public speaking in children

We should make the child realise that he should focus more on enjoying the opportunity of speaking and having fun rather than worry about the result!

Recently I was asked to judge an Interschool Literary event for primary and middle school children. There were about 15 to 20 schools participating and at least 50 children ranging between the ages of 6 and 14 were bursting with enthusiasm to showcase their talent for the oratorical and elocution competitions. The younger children had memorised their respective poems or speeches and the older children had small cards with pertinent points to help them jumpstart their talks.

I looked around and observed the scene before the start of the event. Some were practising aloud furiously, walking up and down. I smiled when I saw some of them hit their foreheads when they forgot a point or made a mistake. The younger ones were anxiously nodding, looking up solemnly at their parents as their attires were being adjusted even as they were being given last minute tips about going on stage and speaking.

While the actual competition itself left me in awe of the children and their aptitude, I could not help but be drawn to a handful of those children who forgot all that they had prepared, who started to stutter and stammer. Then there were those who fidgeted or fumbled, intimidated by the unrelenting crowd. Some of them paused and punctuated their speeches with ‘ums’ and ‘uhs’ to fill the gaps. Agitation, sheer helplessness made some quit half-way.

What really tugged at my heartstrings was when some sought out their parents’ eyes in the audience or in the wings, with tears, silently beseeching for help. I noticed that some got worried at their parent’s reaction to their fumbling and some were just plain ashamed or embarrassed that they had let their parents down.

I consoled a crying child and then asked him why he was crying. He said, ‘My mother told me not to do so many things, but she did not tell me what I should do!’

Following this, I had yet another occasion during Navarathri to observe this phenomenon. It is also an occasion when children are urged to sing at the houses they visit. In one of the houses, I sensed the same unease and nervousness prevailing in one of the children when she was asked to sing by her mother for the golu (dolls exhibition). The child started with hesitation and kept looking at her mother for direction and reinforcement. The mother kept a steady look at the child to ensure she started at the right pitch, maintained the raagam and the thalam and remembered the words. The look changed to a glare when the child mispronounced a word. The child’s song was barely a whisper when she finished. At one point the mother was visibly irritated that her daughter had not lived up to her usual standard of singing. The child hung her head in shame.

The parent’s responsibility

What makes one child so confident and another so self-conscious that it interferes with his natural propensity for expression? What role do parents play in this? As parents, are we living our dreams through our children? Do we ‘accept’ our children only if they do a good job? Who is responsible for creating an aversion or destroying confidence in the name of fostering talent? How does a parent balance his expectation with the child’s actual capabilities? How does one inspire confidence in a child?

In a public arena, when a child’s abilities are on display, there is bound to be a certain amount of fear or apprehension, for both the child and the parent. The child has a trepidation that he is going to be judged, and accepted or dismissed based on his performance. Quite often, the parent wants a good performance, so that society can acknowledge him and credit him for the success of the child.

While the genuinely confident children need our encouragement and support, the not-so-confident, self-doubting, fearful ones need our help. Of course, the stringent, unrelenting parents need more than just help!

Moulding the child

We should make the child realise (particularly if he is a self-achiever who cannot take failure) that he should focus more on enjoying the opportunity of speaking, singing or dancing in public and having fun rather than worry about the result; and that it is okay to not be the winner all the time. That way, the pressure to perform is removed. Then the child will feel less fretful and will learn to put his best foot forward.

Often, children’s fears stem from the unrealistic expectations their parents have of them, leading to a build-up of great pressure. A child will definitely stutter if he is continuously bombarded with negative stimuli. Therefore, it becomes the parents’ responsibility to water and nourishes the children in a manner that allows them to naturally bloom and come to fruition, rather than making them wilt and wither. Children have no way of knowing about self-doubt or negativity unless they have heard something hurtful or insensitive from somebody they look up to. One loose, careless remark can undo years of building talent.


Meera Shivashankar is a mother, author, psychologist and teacher.