Dealing with grownups is hard enough, but interacting with the younger set is a minefield all its own. Herewith, a guide to the strange beasts that are Other People's Children.
A reader recently asked, "How the eff are you supposed to talk to kids?" How indeed? For people who don't have kids of their own, being friendly toward other people's can be a tough balancing act — you don't want to condescend to them, but you might not talk to them exactly the way you talk to your friends, either. And even if you do have kids, what do you do when other people's offspring step out of line? Luckily, we have tips for both situations.
This sounds simple, but it can be tough to keep in mind — though you probably shouldn't ask kids about, say, their favorite porn, you don't have go all baby-talk on them, either. Writer and mom Helaine Olen told me her strategy for interacting with kids:
I always try to talk to them [...] like they're just regular people. I never dumb down my vocabulary for children at all, which I think is a really key thing, because children will always ask you if they don't understand something. They don't have our inhibitions about looking stupid.
Just treating a kid the way you'd treat any new person can eliminate some anxieties about not being "good with kids" — you're really just trying to have a conversation. So what do you talk to kids about?
Michelle Borba, parenting expert and author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions, suggests that if you know you'll be hanging out with kids, you may want to find out a little bit about what they're into ahead of time. That could mean asking their parents about what sports or hobbies they're involved in, or finding out a little about their school. Then, says Borba, ask questions, and "throw it over to the kid to draw them out." Melanie Edwards of ModernMami advocates a similar approach:
I think the best thing anyone can do is listen to children. Many times, kids spark up conversation on their own without being prompted. In such a situation, just listen to what they have to say, ask questions if something they say doesn't make sense to you, and respond to their thoughts. One of the best ways to engage kids and create a conversation is to ask them about any toys they might be playing with or shows they might watch. Those usually lead to other conversation topics.
Borba adds that with younger children, if all else fails,
Be a sportscaster. It's really a simple technique, and the only thing you do is talk about what the child is doing: 'Oh, you're picking up your Barbie.' 'Oh, you're putting that blue block on top of the red one." [...] Believe it or not, it's the easiest level to begin a conversation, and what happens is the child begins to feel like you're interested.
It's always important, if you can, to get to the level of the child, so that you're not a giant and the kid is all the way down there. Maintain eye contact by lowering yourself into a chair, or just bend down.
Vazquez also advocates not talking too loud or too fast — you may also want to avoid touching the child, "because some children may be uncomfortable or may have been told not to allow other people to touch them."
Just like with adults you've just met, you don't want to overstep boundaries by asking kids overly personal questions. With older kids, says Dr. Vazquez,
I don't think you should ask, 'Do you have a boyfriend? or 'Do you have a girlfriend,' because some children don't, and that's more private.
A better tack might be asking about a kid's favorite computer or phone games — says Vazquez, "one topic these days that kids are almost all knowledgeable about is electronics."
Just like adults, kids will sometimes ask you questions you don't want to answer — and these could range anywhere from "why is your nose so big" to "where do babies come from." Says Edwards,
If you're uncomfortable with a question a child asks you, it might be best to say something along the lines of "That's a great question! Why don't you ask your mommy or daddy to see what they think about it?" Of course, you could always fall back on a simple "I don't know" and distract them with something else!
Borba offers a few more strategies: "throw it back to them — say 'why do you think?'" Or "you can give part of the answer but not all of the answer," so for the awkward nose question you could "say something like 'I don't know, it started growing when I was five.'" And, reminds Borba, "you never have to answer a question an adult or a child asks if it makes you uncomfortable."
As a general rule, if you see a child misbehaving and you are not his or her parent or caregiver, it is not your job to mete out punishment. Says Olen,
Do not discipline them. Tell them to cut it out or you're going to tell their mommy or daddy. It works. Whether their mommy or daddy is going to discipline them is not your concern. I know that sounds horrible, but that's really all you can do.
She also says,
Gauge the situation. We do tend to be too invasive, and a lot of times children can work it out for themselves. I mean, obviously if someone is being hit you don't let them work it out for themselves, but the normal day-to-day stuff, you're most often better off staying out of.
Borba also suggests that for less severe misbehavior, distraction can be effective — just say, "let's go someplace else" or "let's go get something to drink," and you might be able to defuse the situation.
If a child is bothering you in a public place, Dr. Vazquez advises politely asking the parents to keep things down. However, Borba says that if it's a nice restaurant or another venue that's not explicitly kid-friendly, you may have more luck talking to an employee. She says,
Address it with your waiter. They don't want the other kid to misbehave. Chances are the parents aren't going to care — if the kid is rude and just egregiously obnoxious in a restaurant, chances are the parent doesn't care and no matter what you say, they're not going to get it, and it will be your problem, not theirs. Therefore, you have a couple of options –- one option is to ask to be moved, or to ask to have a different seating, or you can ask the waiter quietly, "would you mind having a chat with the other parent," or you can request to talk to the manager.
She adds that you should make sure the situation merits speaking up — if it's something you can deal with simply by tuning out, it may not be worth bothering the staff or the other family about. Relatedly:
Dr. Vazquez offers an important reminder:
Our standard of behavior really cannot be applied to all children. [...] In a public place, if children are giggling or just having a good time, it might bother an adult who might not have children, but within reason one also has to be aware that they have rights.
Have some empathy. Don't just look at the kid, look at the parent. Very often what you may see is stress, you may see that they've had a really hard day.
If a kid is misbehaving and you approach the parent in a confrontational way, you may just escalate the situation — it can be better to see what you can do to help. Borba suggests that if there is a problem, "start calm, don't accuse, and look and see if there's another side that you're not recognizing." Which is good advice for navigating almost any social minefield.
The Big Book Of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers To Your Everyday Challenges And Wildest Worries
ModernMami [Official Site]
Parenting With Pride Latino Style: How To Help Your Child Cherish Your Cultural Values And Succeed In Today's World
Helaine Olen [Official Site]
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