How do I become more successful with children?
November 2, 2011 4:05 PM   Subscribe

How do I become more successful or popular with children? I love kids, but I don't know how to act around them.

I've noticed that some people are magnets for children and are really good at keeping their attention and interest. I love being around kids and as a child I had some great teachers who influenced my life in positive ways.

If context is important here, I'd like to do both teaching and volunteer work in the future. I'd also like to be able to interact and engage with the kids I encounter while going about my daily activities and at family gatherings, etc.

Are there any enlightening books on this subject? I've failed to find anything in my search. Maybe I'm asking the wrong question for my answer.

posted by bradly to Human Relations (30 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
I realized I had the same question when I heard these two episodes of This American Life address it.
posted by taramosalata at 4:10 PM on November 2, 2011 [4 favorites]

All you really need to do:

#1: don't worry about whether you are popular or successful with children. Just be who you are.

#2: show them respect. Listen to them, respond thoughtfully, and if they want to show you something or share something, pay attention. If they're doing something, ask them a question about it.

#3: show them kindness. Smile. Notice them, even if it is to say "Please wait a moment until I finish this conversation, Dudley" or "I can't play right now, but thank you, Maybelline."
posted by davejay at 4:11 PM on November 2, 2011 [5 favorites]

Also, crouch down so you're at their level. Lie around on the floor with them. (This applies to small children, of course -- once they get a little bigger, they'll think you're an idiot, like all adults.)
posted by Rash at 4:18 PM on November 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'll echo davejay's #2 above. I do well with kids, and I think a lot of it comes from me being a pretty patient person and a good listener. A lot of kids are just happy when adults listen to their weird ideas, or watch whatever their latest "look what I can do" is. I think they imagine most adults to be uninterested in kid stuff, so if you show interest and pay attention it goes a long way.

Also, maybe a little cliche, but try to think like them. By that I mean show interest in the same things they're interested in. For toddlers that may be basic physics and exploring muscle control, for teenagers it may be interests, hobbies, dating, whatever.

And lastly, I'd say be as smiley and friendly as possible. I work with kids and I have to remind myself to do this a lot, otherwise I'll get into work mode and kids interpret my blank stare or introspective face as scary/intimidating adult face. Adults know better than to judge a book by it's cover, but kids don't seem to be there yet.
posted by p3t3 at 4:23 PM on November 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

Silly faces. Pratfalls. Anything that makes you, the grown up, look like you refuse to grow up. And speaking to them like they're a friend, not like some dumb little kid. Also candy.
posted by phunniemee at 4:24 PM on November 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

My rule of thumb is to treat kids the way I wished adults would have treated me: Give me respect, gently encourage me to behave, don't lie to me, and be willing to help explain the world to me.
posted by luckynerd at 4:25 PM on November 2, 2011 [9 favorites]

Trying to think like them is a good idea. It's also a nice change from thinking like an adult all the time.

Treat them like humans, and listen (actually listen, don't just smile and nod) to their stories. If they can tell that you value their input, or stories, or potential, you're ahead of some adults in their lives.
posted by sarae at 4:25 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

I was a shy kid, and I get along really well with shy kids now. I think the reason is that I am not pushy at ALL - I give them as much space and time as they need to start interacting with me.

For example, I'll say hi, and if they go run behind their mom, that's okay. I might go sit on the floor and play with a toy for a while. I'll wait for the kid to come over to me, rather than pursuing them aggressively and trying to talk to them and play with them.
posted by insectosaurus at 4:26 PM on November 2, 2011

Oh, and with the littler ones... if you read to them, use voices. Put some feeling into it.
posted by luckynerd at 4:27 PM on November 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

It depends on the age, but basically I try to talk to kids exactly as if they were another adult. Obviously I simplify complicated topics and avoid offensive or sexual ones, but basically I just have a conversation with them. I think most kids react better to that than to forced clowning or condescension.
posted by drjimmy11 at 4:29 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Former kindergarten teacher here... I think enthusiasm and not being afraid to make a fool out of yourself is key.
posted by pourtant at 4:30 PM on November 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

When possible and reasonable, get down low, on their level. Not only will they generally like it, you'll find it easier to think like them and interact as equals, rather than as another adult towering above.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 4:31 PM on November 2, 2011

Being yourself is key. Kids can tell if you are faking it. I am by nature a quiet person and I smile a lot. Kids love me. I think it is because I don't overwhelm them. I just go about my business in a calm manner and when they approach me, I calmly and with a genuine smile answer their questions.

Some people are loved by children by being boisterous and wild. That is their personality.

If you feel you are awkward around children, then bring a prop to your next family gathering. A remote control car (or 4 so you can race) will make you very popular. What ever prop you bring, make sure it is something that you truly enjoy. If you are bored with the cars, the kids will take the cars and have fun without you. Find a toy that you will enjoy playing with and sharing and then share it.

Same way with teaching. If math bores you, you shouldn't teach math. The best teachers are the ones who are passionate about their subjects.

And now, for my sure fire trick that will make all toddlers love you (toddlers tend to be vary wary of strangers). Take a toy or book that the child is familiar with and balance it on your head. Once you have it balanced, sneeze, cough, or hiccup, making it fall off. Look a little frustrated and repeat. By the 3rd time even the shyest kid is laughing and trying to help you put the thing on your head.
posted by myselfasme at 4:50 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Kids seem to be drawn to me, and I have no idea why. I just talk to them like I would a grownup, but age-appropriate. This is pretty easy because the kids in question usually guide the conversation and activity. So, as long as I'm game, we get along pretty well. They're just jazzed an adult thinks they're cool and wants to hang out with them.
posted by katillathehun at 4:58 PM on November 2, 2011

Take them seriously when they're being serious. Be willing to be goofy when they're being goofy. Don't dumb down your language when you talk to them if they're old enough to be in elementary school, but be ready to casually explain what you mean. If you have a mind that goes in weird directions, you can use this to your advantage, because kids often do well with randomness. I like asking kids' opinions on some of the more random questions that occur to me, for example: "Who do you think would be faster, a rhinoceros on a skateboard or a mongoose on a bicycle?"
posted by colfax at 4:59 PM on November 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

I agree with letting kids lead. Some are very social, some are shy. The ones who want attention will show it one way or another. Let them get to know you.
posted by provoliminal at 5:17 PM on November 2, 2011

My father has the same two minute (at most) conversation with my kids every time. That has been going on for at least 15 years. My mother has 20 minute conversations with each one whenever she speaks with my kids. Has been able to do that since they were 5 or 6. Actually has longer conversations with them than I do. After the kids hang up I ask my mom what they said.

I have thought long and hard about why there is a difference and how I can be like my mom and not my dad in this respect. First, as pointed out above, respect. R-E-S-P-E-C-T! Second, listen to them. She starts out with one question about their day and listens. Then she asks follow up questions. She may slip in a "when I was your age" anecdote about how they used tin cans and a string to communicate and she does not get facebook to keep her a slight mystery to them. She is able to ask questions that require more than a yes/no answer. She laughs at their jokes even when they are not so funny.

She also established her role as a grandmother when she visited or the kids stay with her. She would do things that only Grandma could do. She would make it clear that with your parents, this is probably not going to fly, but since I am the grandmother here for a few days to spoil you, caution is thrown to the wind. My kids did end up having pizza and milkshakes for breakfast many a time when they were with her, but so what and it established a we against them dynamic that helped the kids bond with her.

She also knows when to call bs. She will say to them, "You don't really believe that do you?" when my kids are saying outrageous things to here. That is part of the respect and treat as much like equals as she can.

It seems as if all children and small animals like me too. I think it is because I treat them slightly more than age appropriate and I listen and try to find solutions to their problems. "No, we cannot eat that candy right now, but if we work real hard on this block project and the eat lunch, we can have two pieces of candy" type responses. I think kids like both respect and limits.

I have no idea why the animals love me except that I am willing to scratch any animal ear proffered for scratching and I get down to their level for licks and sniffs.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 5:42 PM on November 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

I like asking kids' opinions on some of the more random questions that occur to me, for example: "Who do you think would be faster, a rhinoceros on a skateboard or a mongoose on a bicycle?"

This is a trick question as everyone knows that a mongoose uses a pogo stick.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 5:43 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

I worked with kids of varying ages. While some people are naturally adept at communicating with kids, one lesson I had to learn was that kids were still as individual as the adults I knew. All of the kids respected me, most of them liked me, the ones who were most like me when I was a child loved me, and some of them disliked me (sad, but you can't win 'em all). I found that the younger children and the shy children were the ones I had the most natural affinity with, but eventually I became friends with the older, boisterous lot too.

When you work with them, you come to realise that being nice is nice and all, but really they need to feel secure in what they are doing. Explain everything clearly, and stick to any boundaries you set, they will respect you for it in the long run... Always be direct, but never be angry. Show visible joy in the things they achieve, and ask if you can show off their potato prints and plasticine crocodiles (they love that).

Also, as soon as you become more comfortable around them they feel comfortable around you. I think this sort of X-factor that people-who-are-good-with-kids have is that they aren't at all nervous in the company of kids. Children can sense when grown ups are uneasy, or stressed, or angry, and they find those emotions uncomfortable.

If you're just hanging out with kids, then have fun! Ask tons of questions, they are the best conversationalists once you get them going. Don't worry if a child doesn't take to you straight away, just be yourself and let them come to you.
posted by dumdidumdum at 6:14 PM on November 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

I found this question weirdly hard to answer even though I work in pediatrics, which means I am around kids of all ages all day long when they are way less than at their best. Even if it's a well visit, they're still nervous because, well, who isn't on the exam table?

The thing is, I am passionate about the field of pediatrics because this population (generally) recovers well, even from serious illness, don't typically make themselves unwell (and if there is a health behavior intervention necessary you get to work with the whole family), the clinical problems are exceedingly interesting and challenging, and I like knowing exactly where I stand with my patients.

That last part is maybe why I roll along well with kids. I appreciate that they express themselves so unfailingly clearly, giving me a lot of cues for meaningful human interaction. Even sullen and taciturn adolescents have different flavors of sullen and taciturn--the truly "stay away" kind and the "please work to talk to me" kind.

So it's so nice to spend my work day in total reception mode. I get to work in such a way that my biggest job is to watch, observe, and get lots and lots of information before I have to act.

Practically, staying quiet, at first, staying out of their space, spending a little time talking warmly to people they trust so they can appreciate how their people receive you. By then, I can kind of tell if the kid is silly, or reticent, or so full of pain (physical or psychic) that I should just be as efficient and merciful as possible.

I remind myself that their response to me, no matter what it is, is a gift because it's pure information about how well I listen to other humans.

I don't edit my responses based on the feedback I get from kids--so if the kid relaxes with laughs and silliness, I go there. If it seems best to stay almost completely silent, I trust that. After a bit, because my job means I have to touch them, I start with friendly shoulder touches or brushing hair back (on small ones), and see how it goes before I stick an otoscope into their flaming ear infection.

I make eye contact, because people so rarely do with kids. I tell them what is great about them, a lot and often, and find out the things that really *are* great about them. I stay up to date about things like hair feather extensions, z-sole tennis shoes, Disney princesses, Star Wars Clone Wars, Dinosaur Train, and Selena Gomez and I don't make fun of that stuff, ever. I ask a lot of questions. I tell them cool stuff about health and anatomy. Kids like experts and to be trusted with expert information.

I understand that I am a grown-up, and that I had my own childhood already, and to them, the most important thing is the childhood they are living right now. I don't judge their childhood. I don't tell "walk up hill both ways in snow" stories because I want to respect the hills they are climbing as singularly important.

I don't make them feel like they should get off my lawn; they'll do something more interesting on it than I will, anyway. I tell them the truth to the best of my ability, even when I know it will make them cry. I get that 98% of 15 month olds only like their own people and scream in everyone else's face, and I let them own that. Sometimes all I have to do is model for them what gentle, normal human conversation is so that they might realize one day that what is happening in their home isn't normal and that life doesn't have to be that way.

I don't ask rhetorical questions, like "aren't you adorable?" I also assume even the littlest kid can answer direct questions about themselves very well, and I don't always keep one eye on a parent when I talk to kids because grown-ups will jump on every open door available to talk for and over kids and sometimes grown-ups just need to shut up for a minute.

I know about typical and atypical child development, which helps a lot to frame my expectations and figure out how to get started (you can read up on this yourself on AAP's parenting website), but I leave it open to be surprised by any kid I meet. It's helpful to know, for example, that studies about communicating with adolescents have revealed that when you ask a teenager a lot of questions, especially personal ones, they report feeling judged by the person asking them. With teens, I may start with something like "tell me about why you wanted to talk to me today."

I don't universally "like" kids, but I think they're all interesting. Just like old humans, there are ones you have chemistry with, and ones you don't. I respect it, too, when some kid decides they don't like me and let them set that boundary. Only their extreme youth relative to yours makes them a special and vulnerable population, but they're not "special." Like all the people older than them, they do amazing things, make mistakes, prefer and prefer not, and drink too many of their daily calories.

Kids are about waiting for the right opportunity. Sometimes they are game to let you count their teeth, and sometimes you have to shine the light down their throat while they're screaming.
posted by rumposinc at 7:22 PM on November 2, 2011 [33 favorites]

My son is 4 1/2 now, and I feel like the things that I do to interact with him have varied wildly. From birth to the present, he has gone through 6-8 iterations, depending on the developmental stages he has gone through. I think that this is part of what makes dealing with kids so daunting. What works with a 3 year old doesn't necessarily work with a 5 year old. Where adults fall flat is when the exaggerated speech that catches a toddler's attention just fine strikes a first grader as if you are treating him as too young, potentially. Just getting a sense of the different stages through first-hand experience seems key in connecting with kids.
posted by umbú at 7:37 PM on November 2, 2011

Pay attention to them.

Treat them as people/adults.


Some people can't, but a very successful way is to relate to the kid; think like they do, follow their logic, and proceed to answer their questions/do the activity based on how they are figuring the situation. Most kids are a helluva lot more smart than adult give them credit for; especially kids who've been challenged to think about stuff and consequences and stuff. I've seen people do this badly, though, by (conveniently) lying to the kid. It. is. very. hard. to convey why real life is while staying within a very young person's world view. But I think that it's a more horrible crime to lie to kids and have them be stupidly unthinking and accepting of authority.

I keep being told that 'you're X's favourite "y-location/situation uncle!"' It can be very hard to keep up, especially when real life is particularly grinding you down that week. There's no excuse to let that trickle down to someone who still relies 100% on their parents/"grown-ups" and haven't had (to) experience it for themselves.

People who coddle kids unduly make me extremely, almost homicidally, angry on the other hand. The children of these people who grow up to be my "peers" almost uniformly make me want to do to them what I want to do to their parents.

The crappy thing is that these coddled children are coddled children of the rich. Reality won't get the chance to bite their fucking faces off, like they do children of the merely not-poor.
posted by porpoise at 9:07 PM on November 2, 2011

"#2: show them respect. Listen to them, respond thoughtfully, and if they want to show you something or share something, pay attention. If they're doing something, ask them a question about it."

This is good advice.

"Treat them as people/adults."

So is this.

To put it another way, adults have this strange habit of treating kids like a different species when in fact, they're just as human as so called "mature" folk.

/former kindergarten teacher who has been told I'm good with kids
posted by bardic at 2:38 AM on November 3, 2011

Treat kids like they're 3 to 5 years older than they actually are. Usually, adults unconsciously talk down to kids by trying to “get on their level.” Kids can pick up on that almost immediately. Plus, adults are usually pretty bad at gauging the emotional/mental maturity of kids. I’ve found that kids respond really well when you give them a little credit that they perceive and understand more than you might initially expect. Now, obviously you have to keep the appropriateness level right in check, but when talking to them about their interests or whatever, just don’t dumb it down. Talk to a 9-year-old like a 12-year-old. It helps.
posted by jay.eye.elle.elle. at 7:32 AM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, should mention the credentials... kids' gymnastics coach for a couple years, elementary-school level volunteer for a couple years, super babysitter, awesome "aunt". (Not to toot my own horn too much :)
posted by jay.eye.elle.elle. at 7:34 AM on November 3, 2011

I've raised some kids and taught some kids. One thing I've noticed is that some adults come on much too strong, like a wow, kid, let's interact and connect right now sort of thing. Let them determine how close they want to get with you. If they're the children of friends or relatives just be there, be present, show them you're aware of them. If they don't eventually warm up to you, don't take it personally. If you don't know their parents, and you're not interacting with the kids in some sanctioned capacity, any attempt to connect might be misinterpreted these days. Don't take that personally either. I'm a middle-aged grandmother and even I get the occasional odd look when I spontaneously interact with kids I encounter in public places like the beach or the park.
posted by mareli at 9:50 AM on November 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oh, yeah, forgot to mention: let them drive. Not literally, obviously. I volunteered at my kids' school for a bit, mostly in the background of the classroom activities, and read a book to the class exactly once. I also acted a bit silly at a birthday party once. Now, when I go to pick up my kids at school, lots of other kids -- including some I don't recognize -- call to me by name, smile, come by to talk or show me something, and so on, such that it takes a while to get back out and head home. I have no idea why. I only know that if I sought it, it wouldn't have happened. So my advice above is just me describing how I interact with kids, and what I describe in this comment is the result that I have accidentally achieved.
posted by davejay at 2:59 PM on November 3, 2011

Treat them as people/adults.

Exactly... and whatever you do, DON'T speak to them in that high-voice baby talk way.
posted by Rash at 12:00 AM on November 4, 2011

I thought about this, since I work and volunteer with grade school kids, and there is very good advice here. I agree with treating them respectfully, being as polite and cooperative as we ask them to be, and not infantilizing them. There are tricks to get their attention, having a sense of humour helps. To interact and engage with them better if you're teaching or volunteering, that's also about knowing developmental stages. You could look up psychosocial development, try to understand all the different ways in which children develop, and which fine and gross motor skills children might have at different ages. Knowing things like that can mean you don't walk into a kindergarten class to make a particular craft only to find out that half the kids (or, likely, more) can't use scissors reliably. And knowing things about frontal lobe development in teens might keep you from scratching your head and questioning their judgment, whey you realize those connections to risk taking haven't formed yet. So, reading up using those search terms can help you relate age-appropriately.

At any rate...

I'm known as "the nice one", where I work, and yet the kids do actually like "the cranky one" too, in their own way. In asking my daughter why this is, she said simply "Because we just know that about her. She's just cranky. It's not always about us."

So, I'd add, that giving kids credit, you're not going to fool anyone by acting in any particular way if it's not genuine. I think that kids want to be able to take an adult at face value, whether you're the grownup who is going to walk over and sit down at the table and speak with them about their behaviour, or the one who'll just yell across the room if they're caught doing something that's not allowed. As long as they can trust you, feel safe with you and know their boundaries with you, they can relax and be themselves, which is what they want.
posted by peagood at 12:00 PM on November 6, 2011

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