Me talk to kids one day
May 10, 2022 2:11 PM   Subscribe

I've got a trip coming up where I'll meet my friend's kids for the first time. How do I talk to them?

The kids are 6, 4, and 1, and we'll be staying at a vacation house together. I'm not great around kids, and find that trying to make conversation with them is a bit awkward. I'm good at asking kids to help me do XYZ, and some kids are super-happy to help; others not so much. Beyond that, I feel like the uncool auntie who asks kids how their day was at school, and did they learn anything.

How do you pass the time throughout the day with kids around? Do you just do activities all day? What does a vacation day look like with kids? (We'll mostly be hanging around the house, not going elsewhere.) I'm good at playing games, and plan to do that with them a lot. Maybe some coloring too.

Help me make a good impression and be the fun auntie. I'm flying in, so I can't bring much, but if you have ideas for little things I can bring, I'm open to it.
posted by hydra77 to Human Relations (33 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
How do I talk to them?

Eye to eye. Squat down to their level and get on the floor.
Bring some age-appropriate joke books.
Say yes.
posted by Thella at 2:20 PM on May 10, 2022 [8 favorites]

Follow the parents’ lead and observe how they engage with them.
posted by redlines at 2:26 PM on May 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

maybe the idea of "making conversation" with them is steering you wrong. you don't really have to have a structured (or coherent!) conversation. make a little joke, be silly. with the six year old you may want to participate in their activity (such as coloring) let them call the shots! think of it as them showing you how to be a small kiddo again.
posted by supermedusa at 2:27 PM on May 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The secret to being great with kids is find a calm, relaxed moment and then
(a) get physically down to their level (kneel, sit on the floor, or even lie down - get comfortable) and
(b) see what they do/say so you can respond exactly at their level

Once you signal your interest in interacting with them by showing up physically in front of their face and smiling, allow them to lead the conversation or the activity. It's entirely on them. Your job is to follow improv rules: say yes to their lead, go along with their idea of how to interact with you. If they aren't responding, they're turning away, not showing interest in interacting - that's absolutely fine. Someone who respects a kid's disinterest is also someone who is great with kids! (Just don't assume the disinterest is permanent! Give them multiple opportunities to interact with you by showing up at their level after a break.)

The main mistake adults make, imo, is to try to get the kid to interact with us on our level, both physically and otherwise. We pick them up. We ask them questions, we tell the joke, we suggest the game... in other words, we implicitly demand that they meet us in our comfort zone. Do the opposite. You will be golden.
posted by MiraK at 2:28 PM on May 10, 2022 [27 favorites]

Best answer: Get into what they're interested in. Did I absorb all the facts I was told about High School Musical? No. But kiddo got attention and her parents got a small break. Improv-style "yes and" is a good attitude. Does their purple horse have a friend? Do they like candy? Theater of the absurd should be pretty good with those ages as well (think picking up various objects and asking "do you like my hat?").

Kindergarten classrooms change activities every 10-15 minutes, as a baseline. Activities will get boring fast (except usually screen time). Let the kids generally drive and go along for the ride.

Gifts: whatever minor-ly boundary-crossing thing their parents won't let them have. I gave elementary-age girls foam glittery squeeze-y toys and they remembered it because their mom is pretty crunchy and these were a rarity. Candy is probably good if they don't have dietary restrictions. Something that makes noise or is electronic is probably overstepping.
posted by momus_window at 2:32 PM on May 10, 2022 [4 favorites]

A lot of kids can't handle open-ended questions like, "How was your day?". Instead, I tweak them to something specific like, "Who did you have lunch with today?"
posted by SNACKeR at 2:35 PM on May 10, 2022 [9 favorites]

Best answer: I used to be an elementary school teacher for years. One easy conversation starter with kids is whether they like dogs or cats best, and why? Just smile and be silly. I also find that (if it's ok with the parents), pulling out my phone and helping the kids distort their face with a face-twisting app like LOLBooth never fails to make kids laugh loudly, and they'll be fighting to play the game with you and you will be their friend. When I was a teacher, I called this "face-twisty time" and I used this as a positive behavior reward. I would display the kids' distorted faces on a projector in real-time and the whole class would deafen me with their laughter. Making kids laugh is the best.
posted by fenwaydirtdog at 2:41 PM on May 10, 2022 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I've found kids don't always want to talk about their day. Be prepared to give an opinion about your favorite ____, even if you don't care about pokemon or paw patrol or whatever.

I agree with play being a good lingua franca, though "play" for an adult looks way way different than "play" for that age range. A shortcut would be to watch a few episodes of Bluey, an Australian animated kids show (on Disney+ in the US), but the show is mostly about the dad playing with his 4 and 6 year old daughters (they're all dogs).

Almost all of the play is doing normal everyday things. They play things like "bus" or "shop" or "restaurant". There aren't rules, per se, just roles, like you're the chef, I'm the waiter, and you just go with it. Bonus points if it's something they've just recently experienced as a kid but now they can play the role of an adult (like playing restaurant after going to one).
posted by sleeping bear at 2:46 PM on May 10, 2022 [5 favorites]

One of the best things to introduce kids to is Mr. Sketch markers- they are the ones that have different scents. You can have a lot of conversations about all the scents, and also draw a bunch. Markers can be messy- but they help kids to make good marks on paper, where as other writing instruments can be harder for little kids to use.

If food isn't an issue (because of family norms or allergies) I would also think about some things you can make with them. Pancakes, cookies, interesting grilled sandwiches. And if the parents agree, a good sugary cereal would, I am sure, get you points, and also spark conversation.

Another idea, depending on where you are staying, is to make a "fairy house" on the property with only things found in nature. This could be a fun multi day activity for the two older kiddos.
posted by momochan at 2:55 PM on May 10, 2022 [3 favorites]

PROTIP: Do not bring markers to a vacation house with a 1-year-old.

posted by Phssthpok at 3:02 PM on May 10, 2022 [45 favorites]

Best answer: Don’t worry about the one year old. If they are doing something you can do parallel play with them, like if they are playing with blocks you can do blocks next to them, or if they are wandering in the yard looking at bugs you can also look at bugs with them, etc. If they are talkative chances are high that you will not understand a word they say, so just go on emotional cues, like if they seem happy or frustrated or shy, and respond with relevant energy. They might like to snuggle or be held, make yourself open to that by leaving obvious space next to you on the couch or being close to them on the ground. They might have a favorite book that their parents are extremely tired of reading to them that you could read instead.

For the older kids, ask directed questions with answers. Like “what is your favorite song?” “Do you like peanut butter?” And then “have you ever had peanut butter… and CHOCOLATE???” Don’t ask open questions where they might not know how to start. If they seem to want to ramble, let them, and ask relevant questions so they can show off their knowledge. If they are nervous around you, you can tell little stories about yourself. Tell them how you know their parents. Tell them about any pets you may have. Tell them about a time you made a pie, or acted in a play, or rode a horse. Leave ample pauses for them to ask questions about your story.

Ask them if you can have a hug or a high five when you see them and when you say goodnight or goodbye. If they don’t want to do either just give them a wave. It’s really good practice for kids to be able to express what kind of physical interaction they are comfortable with, and it can change from moment to moment.
posted by Mizu at 3:07 PM on May 10, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: How do you pass the time throughout the day with kids around? Do you just do activities all day? What does a vacation day look like with kids?

So this is actually a really astute question because kids impact the shape of your day LIKE WHOA, be it a vacation day or normal.

With a 1 yr old, 4 yr old, and a 6 yr old, you will likely not be doing a lot of sightseeing throughout the day. You may do one or two excursions per day, lasting a couple of hours each time. At 1 year old that baby is going to take at least a couple of naps per day, and the 4 year old probably takes one nap also. All three kids are at the age where you will take lots and lots of breaks for snacks and bathrooms. Don't expect to watch a movie or a show. Don't even expect to get through a leisurely meal at a restaurant. You will constantly be packing up and hurrying out of places you thought you could stay for a while longer at, because someone puked or someone needs to run outside or someone needs to nap or someone needs a snack NOW.

(Honestly, it is astonishing to me how many snacks even my own much older children eat, especially while on vacation... and even more astonishing is how badly they NEED those snacks! You can practically see them wilting pathetically. They are like overdramatic houseplants or pets who act like you haven't fed them for weeks if they've gone two hours without eating.)

So how do you have fun when you travel with young kids?

- Have zero expectations for the vacation qua (your usual idea of a) vacation. Think of this as "learning what a vacation looks like when there are kids around". You're not going on vacation with them, you're going on a research trip. Most of your neat little discoveries will be about "Aha! So THIS is what it's like to vacation with kids!" That will be the measure of a successful vacation, not the usual "do you feel relaxed" or "did you drink enough margaritas on the beach" or "did you see the local attractions".

- If there are attractions you're hoping to see for sure, or experiences you don't want to miss, you might want to make plans to do those things on your own. You don't have to always stick with the family. It's okay to take a couple of evenings or a day to yourself - or more. Figure out what personal time you want to protect and let the family know your plans well in advance.

- When you *are* with the family, be willing to drop everything and pack up at any moment for any of a million reasons. Hopefully you will do so with grace and understanding and good cheer. If you start to feel as if those kids' needs are ruining your vacation - or even if you start thinking things like, their mom/dad is really spoiling those kids by giving into their every demand - that's your cue to take more personal time. Please don't be a resentful trip companion!

- Depending on what's expected of you as a fellow vacationer, you may also find yourself entertaining the older children while the parents are occupied with the younger ones' more difficult moments. Accept this with grace, because this is not your usual vacation, it is a research trip!

- Rediscover simple pleasures. Splashing in the pool. Playing with toys. Spending an entire afternoon coloring. Making an expedition out of hunting for the correct size diapers in the pharmacy nearest to the hotel. All of this can be genuinely pleasurably if you reframe it in your mind. Like, during my last vacation, one of my kids developed diarrhea. We stayed in the hotel room and watched Spongebob the whole day. NGL it was really fun!! It can be super meditative to painstakingly brush all the sand off of a 6 yr old before getting in the car. Lean into the pleasures of whatever moment you are in.
posted by MiraK at 3:07 PM on May 10, 2022 [20 favorites]

Bring a toy - Magformers are great, buy the mid-priced knockoffs (not the very cheapest as you don’t want them to break) so you can have at least 50 of them. Or 2 sets of Bristle Blocks. Dump them all out on the floor and sit with the kids and just let them tell you what’s up. Don’t impose, just follow what they do and be agreeable. Kids like telling adults stuff.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 3:10 PM on May 10, 2022

“if you have ideas for little things I can bring, I'm open to it”

Do you have any small rocks? Any paper whatsoever? Maybe a plastic spork? Seriously, there are two categories of kids’ toys: random things that somehow grab their attention for a seemingly bizarre amount of time, and things you put a lot of money or thought into. You can spend a lot of time thinking of the “perfect gift”, and they’ll immediately set it off to the side and go back to collecting rocks.

With that in mind, bubbles are a great thing to bring.

As for conversation, the secret with kids is the same as with adults: listen more than you talk. With adults it’s easy to listen because they’re sentences usually have at least some relation to each other. With kids, that’s not always the case, which is why listening is so important. Kids spend their entire childhood talking about what adults want to talk about. If you let them talk about what *they* want to talk about, they’ll have a great time.
posted by kevinbelt at 3:21 PM on May 10, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: A few things my grandson (coming up on 3 years old) loves:
- a magnetic wand that picks up metal things
- decorative plastic spring clips with magnets (meant to hold notes on a refrigerator, but he *knows* what they're really put on your clothes as accessories!)
- a simple spin top (just the small kind you give a sudden spin to with your fingers and drop on a table)...he "knows" the purpose of the game is to stop it quickly, not wait to see how long it goes before stopping on its own
- the timer based pop up game where you have to put each correct piece in the correspondingly shaped hole before the timer pops the whole board and sends all the pieces flying (but he "knows" you're only supposed to start the timer once he slowly puts all the pieces in place and then he stands well clear with his hands over his ears).
Of course, be careful nothing too small that could be put in their mouths or choke on.
Kids are fantastic. Hard to believe I used to be one.
posted by forthright at 3:31 PM on May 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

Our niece and nephew (5 & 3) love hide and seek, though... they're really bad at hiding. They'll hide for about 5 seconds, and then start giggling and calling for each other. It doesn't matter, we're running around and having fun.

We play lots of whiffle ball.

They've just gotten old enough to enjoy dance parties, especially when we can play freeze - they stop the music and we all freeze.
posted by joycehealy at 3:33 PM on May 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

I agree that kids that age are more about doing stuff then talking. As far as talking is concerned jokes are good, great time to bring out all of your puns and other terrible jokes, and so are "would you rather" questions. Things like would you rather be able to fly or breathe underwater? Or would you rather eat the hottest pepper in the world or drink a glass of ketchup?
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 3:35 PM on May 10, 2022

Best answer: I would avoid asking:
How are you? They don’t really know what it means
What did you do today? They don’t remember
What do you want to be when you grow up? They live in the present

Great questions for kids:
Do you like animals / trucks / etc
Which do you like more, ___ or _____
I spy with my little eye something that is red!
What’s this? (For toddlers, keep it simple: A dog! A ball!)
Toddlers LOVE when you get it wrong, so ask “is this a hat?” as you place a shoe on your head. Then “oooh ok thanks! what is this?” “A shoe!” “Oh thanks! Ok then THIS must be my hat!” (Place cushion on head). Repeat. A 4 year old should enjoy this when they’re in a good mood.

My best advice: Watch the show Bluey (best episode is “The Weekend”) and model your play after the dad! He’s one of the best TV dads of all time, super fun and funny and playful and imitatable.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 3:43 PM on May 10, 2022 [3 favorites]

The 1 yo won't be doing much conversing. Depending on their age, mayyyyybe a few words. But you can babble back and forth with them. The year old crowd in my classroom like blocks. Megablocks are good (they're bigger than Duplo). Wooden blocks are good. You can build a tower and let them knock it down. Stories are always good. I like the Dr. Seuss board books like Finger Finger Thumb and There's a Wocket in my Pocket. At 1, they may sort of stab at paper with crayons, closer to 2 they will definitely scribble. A mess free way to paint is to put paper in a ziploc bag with a little bit of paint, seal it and let them mash it around. Works for the older kids too.

For the older ones, bring blank paper and crayons and let them go to town. Then ask them what they drew. You'll get lots of crazy answers.

Make drums or shakers. Old oatmeal containers are great for banging on. For shakers you need beans (the biggest you can find for the preschooler) or beads and a water bottle. You can do a water bottle with a mix of oil and water. Pro-tip. Put some superglue on the inside of the lid when you screw it on. Much lower chance of a mess while playing with them.

Sorce: Previous preschool teacher, current infant teacher.
posted by kathrynm at 3:48 PM on May 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: young kids love it when adults seem foolish. n-thing the advice to put things on your head that are not hats. say something like "OH DEARIE ME, WHERE COULD MY HAT BE?" and then put a towel on your head

i also do a game called "Robot Lady" where i put a kid on my shoulders and let them use my thumbs as joysticks to move me around. this works AMAZINGLY GREAT in a pool but can work anywhere if you're careful. sometimes robot lady has a short circuit and does the opposite of what the kid wants!!! plus you get to talk in a robot voice

(PS i am like a 40 something old lady who will never have kids and i'm sort of afraid of them at first (just like i was afraid of everyone when i was a kid, weirdly enough...) but these are some things that have worked for me.)
posted by capnsue at 4:06 PM on May 10, 2022 [11 favorites]

I'll go against the stream: don't fuss. Be nice, but it's not your job to entertain the youth or be engaging. Just be yourself, and if they interact with you or ask you things, be honest and give them straightforward answers.
posted by ovvl at 7:38 PM on May 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

Learn one magic trick, with a prize. Pull a quarter out of their ear, for example. You will be remembered as magical forever.
posted by shadygrove at 7:57 PM on May 10, 2022

Lots of good advice here but I would just add to keep trying even if they ignore you. I have socially awkward kids with no cousins or grandparents and some developmental delays and especially after corona they will just ignore people and it’s hard for them to say much beyond hello and soooooo many adults are like: okay, I tried, I’m done now. Thank you for being someone who cares!!!!
posted by pairofshades at 8:39 PM on May 10, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: One thing that I have found that works great on a vacation is to have an art “project” that you can work on over several days. The easiest I have found is a living “picture”. Bring two, large, shoe box tops (or something similar, cardboard, foam board, etc) and a bottle of non-toxic school glue. Look for objects to glue onto the board, making a picture. Leaves, flowers, sticks, maybe sand or shells. Help them get as creative as possible, talk to them about starting with a definite plan or maybe just add to it and see how it develops. The beauty with this is that you can work on it when you are around the house AND they can keep an eye out for materials while y’all are sightseeing or on excursions. At the end of the vaca, they have a masterpiece to be proud of.
posted by pearlybob at 3:34 AM on May 11, 2022 [1 favorite]

My daughter is three.

Check with the parents before bringing any doodads. A surprise for kids doesn't have to be a surprise for parents.

And don't be the "fun grownup" who gives stuff the parents don't approve of, the parents have their rules for a reason. (Maybe those verboten light-up bouncy balls always lead to fights and broken crockery, and they trigger a parent's migraines.)

Lots of doodads are either a nightmare for cleanup (like markers) or a potential choking hazard for the one-year-old. I'm sure you don't want a scene where the parents are constantly tearing things out of the baby's mouth or wiping everyone down in a stress tornado, while the older kids cry because they can't play with their new toy.

I think washable crayons are better than washable markers, you're much more likely to get your deposit back on the vacation house. You could also order a set of small sports balls, they're cheap on Amazon, arrive flat, come with their own pump, and are good for burning energy outside. Throwing all the balls at once and inventing your own sport is jolly fun.

You'll mostly spend your days trying to get the kids to burn off energy, alternating with everyone collapsing on couches.

The kids' routines will largely dictate the day - they really do need to eat, drink, sleep, and rest at certain times or they will FLIP OUT, particularly when in an unfamiliar location. This isn't "kids running the household," it's just common sense.

Kids pick a lot of fights over food in particular, so don't expect meals to be relaxing. Dinner is often a stress point for families with kids, because everyone is tired from the day. I dread dinner.

As for making conversation, the main pitfall I see is adults interrogating kids with a ton of random questions. Even adults find that awkward, and kids don't have the life experience to process it, like, at all.

So instead just chill with them. Do, don't talk. Draw pictures, read books, sing songs.
posted by champers at 3:37 AM on May 11, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Great advice all around. Adding some considerations:
keep the tone and words positive,
- don’t judge them (and praise is judgment, too, rather narrate what you see and ask them to elaborate, “wow, you used so many colors in your drawing, tell me about the green bit over there!” is much more open than “great drawing!”),
- don’t disapprove of them or discipline them - again you can narrate what you see (“now the glass broke, we have to be careful so the shards don’t hurt us, let’s go to the other room while I remove them”)
- don’t minimize or invalidate their emotions (no “that was just a little scratch, no need to cry”, better “what happened, are you OK” or as they say in Sweden “how did it go?”
- don’t expect polite behavior, even the best parenting can’t fix underdeveloped impulse control (maybe the worst parenting can by instilling fear). Expect constant interruptions (e.g. when you’re talking with their parents), kids running off to the next thing without thanks or consideration for what you want, blurted out expressions of need instead of nicely worded requests, miscalibration of big and fine motor activities such as eating or touching, etc.
posted by meijusa at 3:43 AM on May 11, 2022 [4 favorites]

It can take a while for kids to warm up to a strange person. Purposeful attempts to engage with them often do not work. Lurk around them as they play, pay attention to them in a relaxed way. Get to know them.
posted by mareli at 4:16 AM on May 11, 2022 [8 favorites]

One of my go to tricks for sort of easing my way in to interacting with small children is make an origami frog. It's something I learned how to do in Kindergarten, so if the kid seems interested, you could probably teach the 6 year old and maybe even the 4 year old. Plus the origami frog actually hops. And you can make it into an activity where the kids can decorate the paper used to make origami frogs.

I mean, it doesn't have to be origami frogs. But I think something simple, but entertaining in a very simple way. Basically an icebreaker for small children. And usually the rest flows from there.

I definitely find doing things with kids (play, activities) is a much easier way to get to know them. And yes, getting down to their level so you aren't towering over them. Once you're doing activities with them, conversation can flow from there.

But also, some kids are shy around strangers. Of course, some small children are chatterboxes right out of the gate, but if these kids are on the quieter/shy side, then low key activities are a good way for them to get comfortable with you.

For most little kids, if you show genuine interest in whatever they're interested in, if you give them even just a small amount of undivided attention, then you'll be on the right track.

(The above advice is mainly for the 4 and 6 year old. I haven't mastered the "pre-verbal" age range yet...)
posted by litera scripta manet at 4:56 AM on May 11, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I just like having regular conversations with them but a good one is what's better ice cream or cupcakes ?and then you up the ante going but would you have ice cream over a brownie?
If you can keep coming up with desserts and talking about what your favorite ones are this can go on for like 20 minutes cuz then you can get into their favorite flavors and what the worst flavor is and what two flavors taste good together I mean it's endless
posted by markbrendanawitzmissesus at 2:23 PM on May 11, 2022

adding; I interact with kids and youth the same way that I interact with adults, I'm a bit shy so I don't go out of my way to ingratiate with anyone that I don't know well.

But there is one thing that I can do: I enjoy drawing and doodling with crayons, so I can sit down at a table with kids and make random crayon art, and casually chat with them about various subjects. So there's that. You'd have to like drawing with crayons if you just wanna be casual, and they'd have to like that too.
posted by ovvl at 4:51 PM on May 11, 2022

The two toys I recommended upthread are both baby-safe and also engaging for a 4 and 6 year old (source: I have played extensively with them with kids of those exact ages).

Magformers magnetic building tiles - tactile and fun. You want at least 15 per kid for more options when building.

Bristle Blocks - Plastic blocks that press together. Again get a big set. They're quite affordable and also easy to find secondhand at thrift shops- just dump in a sink of hot water and dish soap to clean them. Try to get at least 20 bristle blocks per kid.

Both are hypnotic and fun, safe for a baby to play with and fun to build more complex structures with.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 9:37 PM on May 11, 2022

My method contradicts a lot of the above, so take it or leave it. Being fun/ silly/ playful is exhausting for me so I act like they're adults. I have a lot of adult friends who like talking about crap that doesn't interest me, but I engage with it because I care about them, and I do the same with kids. I observe what they're into and start conversations about it, I tell them about stuff I have done that they might be interested in and answer their questions about it, I ask them about what they're doing and what they like about it.

A lot of kids absolutely love this because I'm clearly taking them seriously and not being condescending, and they seek me out because of it. (And they leave me alone when they're doing the sorts of stuff I'd find super annoying so it's a win-win.)
posted by metasarah at 8:27 AM on May 13, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks all - there was a ton of good advice here. Appreciate you all taking the time. I'm looking forward to getting to know these kiddos.
posted by hydra77 at 2:56 PM on May 13, 2022 [1 favorite]

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