There are some who receive the title of “Fun Aunt/Uncle [Name]” with every child they hang out with. And there are others who feel awkward around little kids (“Um, what is she thinking and why is she looking at me like that?”). I am here to help the latter group. Because there may be times when you, a distinguished adult, will need to engage with these small people—say, if you’re sitting next to your cousin’s daughter at the family reunion or trying to win points with your new girlfriend’s son. You can do it. Kids can be wonderful conversationalists if they feel you are genuinely interested in them. Really. They’re just like us!
Here are some tips from parents in the Offspring Facebook group for talking to young children (spoiler: none of them involve asking, “So, um, how’s school?”).
Address them by their name—not Little Dude or Princess or “Dan’s kid.” It’s basic respect.
Don’t change your voice. It’s true that babies respond well to a higher-pitched sing-song tone. But with kids over 3, just talk like yourself. “My 4-year-old responds best to people who just speak to her as they would anyone else,” writes a dad named Paul. “At worst, she’ll giggle at you if you change your voice or inflection or use too much baby talk, finding you silly because Mommy and Daddy don’t talk like that.
Or at best, she’ll talk back to you in the same way, assuming that’s just the way you talk and that’s how you will best understand her.” You might use simpler phrases when speaking with children, but don’t dumb down your words. “They are grapes, not ‘grapies,’” writes a mom named Tiffany.
Physically get down to their level. This is something I don’t often do because, well, it’s hard to get back up, but it’s a nice gesture, showing the kid that you’re not above them. I read that Robin Williams would crouch down when he would meet kids so that he could speak to them eye-to-eye. (I may be tearing up right now.)
Go with the weird. Writes a dad named Brendan: “Don’t correct them if they tell you something crazy.
Just play along. I cannot stand people that squash kids’ creativity or fun by dismissing or correcting goofy things they say.” Plus, he says, it’s fun to pretend. If a kid tells you he just came back from Saturn, don’t say, “Yeah, that’s highly unlikely.” Ask him what he ate there and if he met any new friends.
“Tell me more.” A parent named Kerry gives the tip: If you have no idea what a kid is talking about, say, “Tell me more.” It allows them to take the lead.
Name-drop familiar kid interests in casual conversations. This is a trick I’ve learned. Instead of asking a child “Have you ever been to Disneyland?” (yes, end of conversation), try slipping in familiar kid-interests in your own stories. “I was riding the Teacups at Disneyland and I spun really fast and felt so dizzy.” Their eyes will light up as they think “I, TOO, HAVE FELT DIZZY ON THE TEACUP RIDE.” They’ll likely jump in with their own fascinating stories.
Show them your scars. No, we’re not talking about the ones that your ex-girlfriend left when she broke up with you in 2003. Your actual scars. “Show them off and tell the kid how you got the scar,” writes a mom named Clovis. “Kids love showing off their own scars, so this lets them know that you will listen to their stories about how they got them.”
Learn a few kid games. “Kids love Would You Rather ...” Clovis adds. “Would you rather fly or be invisible? Would you rather be rich or powerful? Would you rather eat worms or crickets?” Pick a Hand is also a winner. Show the child a small item, place it in a random fist behind your back, and then show your two fists and have her choose which hand she thinks it’s in.
Get resourceful. Have something possibly interesting in your bag? You can make a tornado in a half-empty water bottle. Or let them play with a stack of mini Post-Its. Or get out your phone, open Instagram Stories, turn it to selfie mode, and put those funny face filters on the kid. Kids love funny face filters.
Avoid the cheap tricks. These include: trying get kids to open up by tickling them (boundaries, people), having them see how hard they can punch your hands or hit you with an inflatable bat (the kids might love it, but their parents probably won’t), and asking them if they have a boyfriend or girlfriend. Also, writes a dad named Austin, “please don’t start by saying how cute or pretty they are!”
Be yourself. Kids look to adults for cues on how to act. So if you’re uncomfortable, they will be, too. But if you talk to them like any other person in a natural way, they’ll open up. Once they do, listen. You might even learn something new.