I’m an adult, so I’m capable of engaging a stranger in conversation as long as she upholds her end of the deal. Say we’re introduced at a holiday party of a mutual friend. I say hey; she says hi. I like her skirt; she likes my tights. When I ask her a question about herself, she answers, and then she asks me a question, and I respond, and the dialogue continues apace until I see an old friend across the room and she needs to freshen her drink and we excuse ourselves from one another until we inadvertently make eye contact later in the party and give each other a terse “Yep, I met you” smile: Interaction complete.
But when the stranger in question is under, say, 10 years old, the whole system breaks down. I feel a heightened pressure to engage with the child of my friend or relative, but the kid is under no obligation to uphold her end of the conversation. She can just look at her hands or focus on her art or crawl under a table. I ask her a question; I ask her a question; I ask her a question.
How is an adult supposed to talk to a kid? I Googled it, and I’m not convinced anyone knows for sure. There are guides on how to talk to kids about terrorism, how to talk to kids about money, and how to talk to kids about what really went down on the first Thanksgiving, but not much on how to talk to kids freestyle. There are some conversational manuals aimed at parents who need to relate to their children on an ongoing basis over a period of decades, but I only ever need to talk to a kid for an afternoon, max. PBS-approved lines like “I had a hard day at work today. I need three minutes to change. Then I can play with you” are unlikely to apply. Besides, many of these guides assume a baseline proficiency with youths that those who have just searched for “how do you talk to kids” are unlikely to possess. Parenting guru Dr. Sears offers 25 rules for conversing with children; tips 13 through 15 are actually “speak developmentally correctly,” “speak socially correctly,” and “speak psychologically correctly.” And as i09’s Katharine Trendacosta noted in 2013, most scholarly research on how nonparents can cultivate conversation with children is aimed at public officials who need to interview kids in crisis situations, not childless adults who want to be a cool aunt.
So I asked some parents for tips. I found that in the art of kid talk, there are two pretty distinct schools of thought. School 1: Act naturally. There are kids here? You barely noticed. School 2: Act unnaturally. There are kids here, so you’re a feeble, gift-toting doll-whisperer who loves farts now.
Let’s consider each school and its respective rules in turn.
School 1: Act Naturally
Avoid the children. “Kids are like cats. They always cozy up to the folks who ignore them or don’t make a fuss about them.” —Fan (parent of a 9-year-old and a 5-year-old)
Don’t pretend to be too excited. “I think the biggest mistake nonparents make is to think that to click with little kids, they need to feign enthusiasm, and so project a level of physicality that can be alarming to such small creatures.” —Jeff (7-year-old and 4-year-old)
Don’t pretend to enjoy doing things with them. “Only do kid activities you actually enjoy. They can tell when you’re faking and you’re also not having fun.” —Jule (6-year-old and 3-year-old)
Don’t care. “With my kids at least, faking is no good. They will more readily respond to a person who is open about not caring about them than to someone who does a big performance of caring.” —Rebecca (4-year-old and 11-month-old)
Don’t pretend to be cool. “While of course kids don’t like to be talked down to, it’s also weird and off-putting to kids when adults talk to them too much like they’re peers. You’ve certainly seen grown-ups do this to kids sometimes, yeah? I guess they’re trying to seem easygoing and cool.” —Eric (2-year-old)
But be cool. “With our 4-year-old, just being a cool, confident lady takes you quite a distance. She was about 18 months when we noticed that she would light up when we had funny, talkative women around the dinner table; she’d watch them intently and then imitate them—their hand gestures, throwing her head back in laughter.” —Rebecca
Talk like a normal person. “Don’t use that super bright, saccharine, condescending voice that people use with kids. To be honest, I don’t know how my kids feel about it, but it’s really annoying to me.” —Michelle (3-year-old and 1-year-old)
So in short, just be easygoing and cool without trying to seem easygoing and cool. Right? And don’t do that weird thing with your voice. You’re still doing it.
School 2: Act Unnaturally
This school is also known as the “Engineer All Your Movements in a Bid to Better Appeal to Children School.” Below are its guidelines.
Kneel down. “To see what you look like to a kid, give them your phone and ask them to take a picture. You look terrifying! I try to whenever possible take a knee and look them in the eye.” —Andrew (11-year-old and 8-year-old)
Feign weakness. “Basically, you ask them to give you a high-five, but then you go, ‘Woooooaaaah!’ and fall backwards, like their high-five was so powerful it knocked you over. Like Muhammad Ali just punched you.” —Ben (2-year-old twins)
Dolls speak to you now. Go with it. “If they’re carrying a doll, ask to borrow it and pretend that you’re having a secret conversation with it that they’re not allowed to hear. After a couple of minutes of this they won’t leave you alone and they’ll want to climb all over you.” —Jeff
Pretend that children are gainfully employed. “Ask them if they have a job. Little kids love that. (They almost never have a job.)” —Laura (9-year-old and 7-year-old)
Ask open-ended questions concerning broadly popular cultural phenomena. “Kids are like athletes. They’re usually a terrible interview. You can’t ask them yes-or-no questions. Like, you can reasonably expect to get a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ from any kid under 12 if you ask whether she plays Minecraft. But then the transaction will end. It’s better to say something like, ‘What kind of stuff do you like to build in Minecraft?’ They all play Minecraft. Or you could ask something open-ended about Frozen.” —Andrew
Don’t be sarcastic. “Kids kinda understand the tone of sarcasm, especially if they watch the Disney Channel, which is full of horribly shitty kid-coms where there are no actual jokes, just kids being ironic and sardonic and making raised-eyebrow, scrunchy-mouth faces. But kids don’t typically get the content of sarcasm, and in my experience, they equate it a little bit with meanness. When you joke around with them in a way that is sarcastic and not earnest, kind, and silly, you kinda put them in a position where they have to pretend to ‘get it’ but also wonder if you’re making fun of them.” —Eric
Discuss farts. “For 8-year-old boys, it’s video games, sports, school, WWE, and bums. If you can get something in about bottoms or farts, you will be their favorite person ever.” —Ewa (11-year-old and 8-year-old)
Bribe them. “Bring kids stuff. Kids love stuff.” —Jule
So which approach is superior? I decided to test them out. Last weekend, my colleague Michelle, parent of two, allowed me to visit her apartment to try some of the tactics on her real live children. Here’s what I knew going in: Her 1-year-old, Lucie, likes carrying an object in her hand, giving it to someone else, saying something that kinda sounds like “Thank you,” then taking it back. Her 3-year-old, Zev, likes skeletons, robots, Bruce Springsteen, and crucially, animal YouTube videos—a thing I know how to access on my phone.
But when I reached Michelle’s apartment and got in sight of the kiddos—Zev zipping around the sidewalk on a scooter, Lucie clutching a fun wooden plaything in one hand—my mind emptied of all the little tricks I was supposed to pull: the studied nonchalance, the open-ended questions, the doll ruse. I felt my voice spontaneously rise an octave every time I opened my mouth, which I did largely to remark on objects in my line of sight (“Wow, cool scooter”; “That’s a broom?”; “What’s your cat’s name?”). Stuck in some no man’s land between the languid posture of the cool adult and the loose construction of the fun one, I adopted a middle-distance hovering position, assisted with various activities such as “baby lightly kicks a ball” and “toddler inspects a coloring book about airline travel,” and drank my juice. Talking to kids, I realized, is less about the strength of your own conversational strategy and more about your willingness to submit to the nature of their whims. Zev didn’t bite at my prompts about Halloween or Star Wars, but he did show me how his little C-3PO figurine interacts with his Lego skeleton and gave me a tour of his bedroom before he got sleepy, closed the door, and requested, “NO PEOPLE.”
Oh, but the bribing definitely works. I picked up a couple of dinky toys for Zev and Lucie before I arrived, in an attempt to shamelessly buy a fleeting moment of goodwill. Reader, they accepted.