Friday 15 March 2019

How to talk to children (even if you don’t have any)

Don’t ask her what she did at school: that’s like asking an adult what they did two years ago. Here’s some conversational advice for the child-free and child-fearing

I’ll level with you. Kids used to scare the bejesus out of me. (As a rule, I’m wary of anything that’s smaller and faster than me; see also woodlice.) I don’t have children, but most of my pals have gone down the parenthood route, and I’m a stupidly proud auntie. With busy friends, kids soon became part of the package when we made social plans – and the size/age of friends’ offspring became a gauge of how much time had passed since we saw each other.

But I can’t say I enjoyed talking to kids, or felt particularly good at it. It didn’t come naturally. I’d find myself morphing into an unrecognisable weirdo, swinging between Victorian school ma’am and simpering desperado. When I did speak, I had a voice that was three octaves higher and not even my accent. I wanted to be Uncle Buck; the reality was more Nanny McPhee.

 Little kids took training, effort, tactics. They took more than multipacks of Freddos
My discomfort was compounded by society’s (rarely spoken, continually implied) idea of the childless woman as a child-hating freak. Which couldn’t be further from the truth – well, the child-hating bit, anyway. I like kids. I just never really knew how to relax around them.

 Posed by a model. Photograph: Alamy
In my 30s, however, things started to change. I remember starting to feel fiercely maternal towards teenage girls on buses, trains and streets. I knew how to speak to them (and I definitely knew how to speak to men who were hassling them).

But little kids took more time. They took training, effort, tactics. They took more than multipacks of Freddos. I have come to realise that children are not, in fact, a completely different species. The learning curve has been steep and slippery and strewn with godawful Frozen karaoke renditions, but now I feel I can look the critters of tomorrow in the eye and converse meaningfully. Sometimes. Here are a few things I’ve learned.

Talk up, not down
I used to think children were just a big, indecipherable, globby mass of kid-ness; a one-conversation-fits-all sort of situation. But when I rack my own childhood memories of talking to adults, I remember one of the things that annoyed me the most was feeling patronised, of being lumped together with everyone my own age and being seen as a generic “kid”. With language skills came a deep need for respect. One friend goes all out with the grown-up approach when he greets children, even sticking his hand out for a handshake (which they love) and asking what they think about something in the news. Another friend’s six-year-old recently told me that politeness and friendliness were the two things that mattered to him the most when chatting to grownups – by friendliness, he meant talking like friends, on a level (he said his grandparents were best at this).

Don’t try too hard
I hate the fact that this is true because I am a natural-born trier, but it’s always good to slap down your inner people-pleaser – partly for the sake of your own sanity, but also because otherwise kids will quickly mark your card as insincere. Kids can smell desperation like dogs smell fear.

It doesn’t help that I come from a family that stands on ceremony when even a cat enters the room. “Oh, look, here he/she is now!” someone will trill. Meanwhile, the rest of us will turn and marvel at whatever fascinating thing the creature has chosen to do, such as stop, split its legs and lick its bum. Imagine how we treat children. My nephew can’t pass wind without receiving an intense appraisal.

And it’s so nice not to be noticed, sometimes. Ever observed how the cat always comes to the person who doesn’t call it? It’s less stressful. At children’s parties I have been known to occupy a quiet table in the corner, where I sit like a tarot reader, waiting for the kids to come to me. Sure enough, they’ll approach, until I am surrounded and become surprise queen entertainer, like Steve Martin in Parenthood. I also know how to fashion a roast chicken out of a cloth napkin, and the effects of this wizardry aren’t to be underestimated.

 Illustration: Nate Kitch
Sometimes, just dance
Last summer, on holiday with my nephew in Mallorca, I had a major epiphany. Hanging out with a toddler is a lot like hanging out with a friend who is on fast drugs – ie, it’s all about themthemthem, they want to do crazy stunts such as jump in the pool fully clothed, and display random moments of aggressive affection. Once I realised this, we got on a treat. I put on Walk The Dinosaur and we focused all our energy into the universal language of expressive dance. With roaring. Nailed it.

Unless you think kids are nothing more than stupid parrots, you should swear around them, and chill out when other people swear around them. Sure, tell them the difference between swearing at someone and swearing to release joy or frustration, teach them about the power and consequences of inappropriate language; but having a zero-tolerance policy is like freaking out when they see someone holding a wine glass. To think that kids will hear swearwords and automatically be upset or start mindlessly spouting profanities is bollocks. This is real life, not Radio 4.

Don’t ask a silly question
Or, rather, a vague one. I got the standard “Dunno” response from kids so many times, then realised I was asking massively boring questions such as, “What did you do at school today?” A school day is an eternity when you’re nine, so this is basically like asking an adult what they did in 2014. I can’t remember either. Options make things easier: “Do you prefer pink spotted monsters or blue wiggly monsters?” (You can even use this to your advantage: my friend Natalie asks her kids whether they want to go to bed at 7.01 or 7.02. They feel empowered. She gets to drink wine in peace. Sneaky.)

Go surreal
Think Jedi. Think Edward Lear. Think Spike Milligan. Think distraction and wild invention. I throw a made-up word in now and then. With my nephew, this is currently “sheppy”, which I am pretending is the name of the garden bird otherwise known as a starling. This is mainly for my own amusement, but he’s game, because the word sheppy is unusual and nice to say, and no one else knows it at nursery. Once he gets to grips with the internet, such illusions will be shattered, but until then I am a source of wondrous knowledge. Humour is also a big yes-yes. My friend’s six-year-old said he prefers funny chats with adults because a) he knows he isn’t in trouble, and b) “serious chats are harder than funny ones, and it’s easier to talk if we laugh”. From the mouths of babes and all that.

Do not slag off Peppa Pig
Even though the size ratio of Dad to Mum is ridiculous, archaic and reinforces unhelpful stereotypes. Even though the grunting is inconsistent, not to mention gross and phlegmy. Even though a vehicle would never get up that hill and it makes me anxious every time with its deviation from basic physics. This kind of talk will get you nowhere. The bullet has entered their brains where Peppa Pig is concerned.

Own your inner berk
I recall my mum doing the limbo under a rope in front of a roomful of 12-year-olds. I think she was carrying a Hawaiian pizza at the time. It’s almost as if she was taking the idea of “getting down with the kids” literally. Impressive, especially since she often slips a disc. When I try to talk about Minecraft or Terraria, I know I am my mum mark two, doing the limbo. So I try to channel her gung-ho attitude. The kids are usually game. Because it’s fine to be your mum doing the limbo – some would even say it’s a rite of passage – as long as you’re aware of what a berk you look, and you own it. Carpet burns and all.

(Source: The Guardian)

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