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October 29, 2007 1:53 PM   Subscribe

How do I come across as "cool" to a young kid?

I've known a guy for about 6-7 months now and while it's taken some time, we're stepping into the "slowly but surely" method of dating/relationshipping. I'm extremely excited about this, as I like him a lot, but there is one thing I'm concerned about: He has a 4-year-old son who means the world to him, and while I have no problem with it, it will be a new thing for me, and I want to know how to get along really well with his son.
I'm 25, so it's been at least a good 10 years since I've last babysat and a couple of my friends have children, but they're all still babies, pretty much. I can handle babies, and I'm really good with pre-adolescent boys (I tend to think like them, which is a little scary, but hey, we get along!) but the middle is what's perplexing me.
I've stressed this to my guy too, but I want to reiterate that in no way am I looking to step in and be a mother figure. His son has a mother and I have no desire to discipline him or otherwise "parent." I just want to be the little guy's pal, but I don't know how to appeal to a 4-year-old.
They're too young to talk about sports, too old to baby-talk to, and you can only go so far with "So do you have a giiiiiirlfriend in your preschool class?" Current topical subjects could be Halloween costumes, but I doubt I'll meet the little guy before Halloween.
If anyone has any experience or tips, I'd really appreciate it!!!!
posted by slyboots421 to Human Relations (47 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Kids like me, because I listen to them. I don't try to force silly conversations (see: "So do you have a giiiiiirlfriend in your preschool class?"); I let them talk to me about what they want to talk to me about it, and ask questions.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 1:57 PM on October 29, 2007 [3 favorites]

Have fun, smile, when you play with him get down on the floor, don't talk down to him or patronize him, be patient if he wants to show you something 8,472 times.
posted by ian1977 at 1:57 PM on October 29, 2007

Do not talk down to him. Converse with him. Ask him what he likes to do for fun. Ask him about his friends, etc. You might be surprised at how engaged you can get in a conversation with a 4 y.o. Also -- ask him if you can play one of his favorite games with him.
posted by ericb at 1:57 PM on October 29, 2007

Or, what TPS and Ian said!
posted by ericb at 1:58 PM on October 29, 2007

Honestly, from his point of view, he doesn't really want to know you because you are cutting in to his Dad time. You are the third wheel and he's not going to be happy about it because he probably doesn't see his dad as often as he'd like as it is now, and here you are interfering with their manly bonding time. If I were you, I'd stay in the background--go out for pizza with him, but after that let him have some Dad time alone. Don't try and be cool, that will only make you look like you are trying too hard and kids can smell that a mile away and use it against you. Get to know him slowly on his terms and respect the fact that he's a little kid who only sees his Dad in small doses as it is and he wants as much of his Dad to himself during that time.
posted by 45moore45 at 1:59 PM on October 29, 2007

My four year old loves watching Dirty Jobs and stuff that flies; so make him some paper planes and go hunt for bugs. Sure he'll get excited about anything you show any enthusiasm towards, 4yr olds are easy to please.
posted by zeoslap at 1:59 PM on October 29, 2007

Response by poster: 45moore45 - I certainly appreciate your point. I just wanted to add in here, in case anyone wondered, that Dad is the primary caregiver in this situation - every weekday, most weekends, etc. When we last had a conversation about this he told me he doesn't expect me to step in as stepmom, but asked if I'm "okay with it being the three of us." I said I don't have any problem with that, but I'm not the most important one here!
But I will definitely be mindful of male bonding time. Thanks!
posted by slyboots421 at 2:04 PM on October 29, 2007

A close friend of mine has 4-year old twins, a boy and a girl. They are way easier to hang with now that they're 4 than they were when they were younger. They can talk perfectly now, and they have all sorts of interests that they want to share, and that's what I walk to them about. I am very careful to not talk down to them, while at the same time respecting their ages (i.e., not outing Santa as a fake). I suggest finding out what this kid's interests are (it will probably be pretty obvious from his toys, drawings, books, DVDs) and talking about those things with him. It's actually really surprising to me that there are a lot of characters who were popular when I was a kid that are still big with the kids nowadays; you'll find that you can actually contribute to the conversation if that's the case. I totally wowed the little girl twin when I told her that Wonder Woman (who she is dressing as for Halloween) has an invisible plane.
posted by amro at 2:12 PM on October 29, 2007

Find something he likes, and like it too. I've got twin 5 year old nephews that just love Justice League. I sat down and watched an episode with them the other day, asked questions, and showed an interest. We must have talked for an hour afterwards. You could just see their minds spinning, elaborately explaining the characters. All we needed was a little common ground to serve as an icebreaker. Good luck.
posted by enobeet at 2:14 PM on October 29, 2007

Honestly, from his point of view, he doesn't really want to know you because you are cutting in to his Dad time.

I don't think this is universally true. Doesn't it sort of depend on the kid, his personality and the kind of relationship that he has with his dad? Since he (seemingly) spends so much time away from his mom, he might be totally down with having a girly type around more often.

I think the advice to get down on his level, talk to him like a person instead of a puppy, show interest in what he likes and above all, be patient is great. Given a little bit of time, his personality will become more apparent, and things will be easier.
posted by mewithoutyou at 2:14 PM on October 29, 2007

You could also approach dad and junior as a team. By that I mean ask questions like...so what do you guys like to do on saturdays?, do you guys like the simpsons?, did you guys like the movie?

in contrast, don't show up at dads house and team up with dad. Then it will feel like dad and slyboots are there and junior is the extra.

That makes perfect sense in my head but I am not sure if it is translating on text.

Also, don't make any sudden movements, don't get him wet and never feed him after midnight. :-P
posted by ian1977 at 2:15 PM on October 29, 2007

Fart and poop jokes NEVER fail.
posted by tristeza at 2:19 PM on October 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

If you're having a scheduled Meet Each Other day, you could bring some kind of little project that might interest him. Or you could start off by all going to the zoo or something similar, so there is something natural to talk about.

Also -- You say you don't want to parent or discipline him, but be realistic in your expectations. He is four. You need to be comfortable with being the adult. If you try too much to be his equal, or act as if you are not an adult, he will be confused. I'm not saying you should be an authoritarian jerk, but also remember that if you're going to be around a lot, he will expect/want you to enforce some expectations about behavior. Take cues from his dad about what the house rules are, so you'll be ready if junior tests you to see if you know about them. ("No, let's wait for your dad before crossing the street", etc)
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:27 PM on October 29, 2007

Meet him at his level in as many ways as you can. Getting down to his level physically (like Ian said) is a huge step. Lots of grownups don't bother to do this. Play at his level, too--if crashing his cars is his thing, join him in it. If he likes to pretend, play along. Keep the fact that you are the adult somewhere in your mind so you don't get too carried away and get both of you in trouble. (I hate it when only the kid gets in trouble but I know it was really my fault! I feel terrible!)
posted by wallaby at 2:27 PM on October 29, 2007

I don't think you have anything to worry about in the sense of trying to be "cool". Just play with the kid (the aforementioned trucks or trains or whatever). Hell, my nephew just likes it when I chase him around the dining room table. Just do stuff with him and participate. And hopefully "gf in pre-school thing" was a joke because no kid really likes that question.
posted by mmascolino at 2:42 PM on October 29, 2007

Everyone above is right. Don't try to talk or act like a kid, or he'll just think his father is dating a moron. Instead, talk to him and treat him like he's an adult.

Ian's "team" idea is also cool.
posted by rokusan at 2:49 PM on October 29, 2007

Yeah, if the kid were over 6 or so, you'd have an uphill battle-- he'd have a point of reference, thanks to his peers, as to what "cool" is, and if you didn't get it, you'd be out of the loop.

But 4, that's manageable. Lots of love, talking on his level, showing him that you understand that he and Dad are a team-- that'll get you really far. And if your relationship lasts, by the time he's old enough to know what's "cool," you'll be an expert too.

Oh yeah-- in addition to the already-suggested poop and fart jokes-- pretending to hurt yourself always brings the house down too.
posted by Rykey at 2:56 PM on October 29, 2007

This was on a recent episode of This American Life
posted by milkrate at 2:57 PM on October 29, 2007

Give him airplanes. Kids that age love airplanes, raspberries, and tag. If you show a complete willingness to do the kid things he wants to do in the kid way he does them, you will be off to a fantastic start.
posted by Anonymous at 2:57 PM on October 29, 2007

my four year old nephew is so into Thomas the Tank Engine it hurts. He likes to chat about things he does at daycare. He loves to have stories read to him and if they're not Thomas the Tank Engine, his favourite is The Hungry Caterpillar. He watches all the kids movies/cartoons (yeah, I know, his parents swore he was going to be brought up without a tv) and like to sing about "transformers, robots in the skies" and recently was very impressed with SpongeBob ScabbyPants (it was scary-pants, but I liked Zeb's pronunciation better). Pretty much we get on well, I think, because he will bring me something, and I'll ask intelligent questions.

I NEVER say "oh aren't you cute and adorable" because the boy is a person, not a fluffy kitten. He has a unique viewpoint on the world, being less than a metre tall and I'm fascinated by his language development and use of logic. I never force physical affection on him, but respond to it enthusiastically if he offers, because again, he's a person, and he has a right to his own body.

When it comes to minding him, I usually ask him what his parents would do and bless his dear little heart, he tells me. Like rules, bath depth, bedtime. Where the parental rules are too soft for my plans, I ask him, what does he have to do at kindy, and again, he tells me, things like cleaning up one set of toys before getting out another set. So we do that together. He tells me where things go.

In short, treat the boy like an adult alien, with courtesy and interest, not like a child, and I think he will respond to that.
posted by b33j at 3:18 PM on October 29, 2007

treat him like he's an adult

Just reiterating in case you are as naive about young kids as I was a few years ago: you cannot really treat him as if he is an adult. Adult small talk won't work, letting him do things unsupervised will not always work. Certainly you should participate with him, do fun things and be enthusiastic about things he likes, not talk down to him much, etc. But don't go so far in trying not to "patronize" him that you forget he actually is a young child and needs adults to set boundaries of safety, appropriateness, etc. (I'm not saying you will forget this -- I'm saying that when I was first spending time with my young relatives, I would sometimes forget that sometimes a little kid just wants a hug, or to be carried back to the car, or to be told that now it's time to calm down since we've been dancing like freaks for 40 minutes.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:18 PM on October 29, 2007

don't stress, just let your boyfriend take the lead. you'll do fine.
posted by thinkingwoman at 3:42 PM on October 29, 2007

Ask him to show you his toys. Exclaim over the awesomeness of his favourite car / plane / rocket / whatever. If he wants to show you more of his toys, let him and keep on being enthused.

Don't fake it, actually enjoy the toys, and boom -- you've won him over for years to come.

(Bonus points if you have toys of your own you're not afraid to let him play with. I spent a few afternoons with seven-year-old twins and my Doctor Who walkie-talkies made me their deity.)
posted by Katemonkey at 3:51 PM on October 29, 2007

When you were a kid, did you ever meet adults you didn't like? I bet there were common themes -- distant, overbearing, dismissive, rigid, etc.

Now, don't be like those people.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:51 PM on October 29, 2007

You know, I always thought I would be horrible with kids until I started working with them over the summer. (I'm 29 now, for a point of reference, and I babysat in my teens, too.) I haven't changed my ways at all, but who knew that just being myself would be enough? (I'm still not sure if I actually WANT kids of my own, but now I know they're not some scary crazy alien beings.)

One thing I've found: when they're doing something really dorky and funny and silly (like spinning around in circles for no reason at all, or poking themselves in the eyes so they see stars - you know what I'm talking about), I'll say, "dude! what are you DOING?" and they just look at me and laugh and then I'm automatically cool. I don't know if it's in the delivery or what, but I say it as if one of my 30ish year old friends were doing it.

Basically: talk to them as you'd like to be talked to, and respect them. Kids aren't dumb. Be the adult when you have to, but don't be a jerk about it.
posted by AlisonM at 3:52 PM on October 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

Oh, and show him how to blow stuff up real good. Baking soda and vinegar. Mentos and Diet Coke. Model rockets. Fireworks.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:53 PM on October 29, 2007

Oh, also, I'm not in a kid-related industry, but the job I got (within my industry) is kid-related. At the time, I was all "oh, I need a job," but now I'm glad I took it because I'm good at it!
posted by AlisonM at 3:54 PM on October 29, 2007

Make him margaritas.

Okay, kidding. But I swear it works. So, I had a brother born when I was 11 and later was a birthday party coodinator at an amusement park, and kids like me pretty well. Tell 'em jokes, do activities with them (cooking fun stuff like popcorn balls or quesadillas is good), play games that are fun for both you and him (Connect Four or Play Doh, rather than Pretty Pretty Princess, which SUCKS). Show them tricks, like the one where you make your arms float up, or the one where you wad a napkin in a glass, invert the glass and push it to the bottom of a basin of water, then bring it back up and the napkin's still dry. Stuff like that. Lemme show ya somethin', kid. Four's pretty young for some of these tips, but buy the dude a rad book, Don't Break The Ice and some fruit by the foot and you're in.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 4:01 PM on October 29, 2007

My 4yo nephew always loves me the most when I let him take photos with my digital camera.

He loves to show off his newest stuff too, so asking him what he's playing with right now might be a good way to see what he's interested in. And a good way to make a royal mess of the living room as he brings out every toy, one by one...
posted by faunafrailty at 4:04 PM on October 29, 2007

Honestly, from his point of view, he doesn't really want to know you because you are cutting in to his Dad time.

I also don't think this is necessarily true. When I was 5-7 I thought my mother's boyfriend was really cool. He was a programmer and encouraged my interest in computers. He talked to me like I was a real person, and I never felt excluded or when he was around.

It's when the kids are older that you have to worry more about being outright rejected. I never wanted anything to do with my mother's subsequent boyfriends from about age 12 on up.
posted by puffin at 4:21 PM on October 29, 2007

Easy for me to say, but... I think you're overthinking this. Don't try to be proactive; let the kid decide how this is going to go, and take your cues from him and his dad. Don't need no master plan--just be yourself. I think they (kids) can sense when you're trying too hard.
posted by wafaa at 4:26 PM on October 29, 2007

Also, it's just like getting to know anyone of any age. You don't go out trying to impress someone; but if it clicks, then great. (Unless you are trying to impress Boyfriend by impressing The Kid).
posted by wafaa at 4:32 PM on October 29, 2007

You know what works with my nieces and nephews (not to mention my own Darling Ones when they were small)? Tickling. They never get it from their parents, which is sad, but it opens the door for me becoming (again!) The Favorite Uncle. I always stop while they're having roaring time and they come back begging for more.

Then again, it might be that I usually do this when they are generally being ignored by the other adults so perhaps they just like the attention?

Also ++TPS and Ian. Treat kids like, you know, people and they'll never forget it.
posted by trinity8-director at 5:15 PM on October 29, 2007

I have always been regarded as "cool" by the pre-teen set by being ridiculously irreverent about things that most adults they know take seriously. Like, when I find out a kid spent the last week in Vacation Bible School, I'll say something like, "Do you think Jesus ever left skid marks in his robe?" It never fails to trigger gales of laughter.

When they grow up, they'll probably think I was an idiot, but hey, it works when they're young.
posted by jayder at 6:04 PM on October 29, 2007

Four-year-olds are awesome. Little enough that you can pick 'em up and swoop 'em around and give endless piggyback rides and tickle them until they're in hysterics. Old enough to not only communicate in complete sentences, but to also explain their brilliant theories. (Which are, no kidding, really fucking brilliant.)

As an opener, ask for explanations of toys. Play with those toys or other nearby toys. Do not feel stupid. That'll be enough to get your foot in the door.
posted by desuetude at 6:49 PM on October 29, 2007

Let the kid do the talking. Presents are good.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:41 PM on October 29, 2007

Buy the kid ice cream and cookies. That's all. You're in.
posted by HotPatatta at 8:14 PM on October 29, 2007

4 year olds are just about the neediest people on earth. Just show them any attention and they'll worship you.
posted by any major dude at 8:56 PM on October 29, 2007

Step one: be honest, direct and supportive.

Step two: indulge them when they are asking to be indulged, but not when they're doing their own thing -- let them drive it until you get the rhythm of how they like to interact.

Step three: realize that even a child with two loving parents (biological) who are "perfect" will still spend a lot of time acting out and getting angry about things, and it's not your responsibility to stop it (and you're not the direct cause of it) -- just to be patient and either help them through it (if you can) or let their father handle it.

Step four: note that if you're around by the time they're nine, they'll have forgotten there was ever a time in their life where you weren't around.

Oh, and: you cannot be cool to a child, don't even try. Be consistent, be supportive, be direct, be patient, be firm -- but forget being cool. The best you can do it you're in a parental role is have them come to you when they're adults to say "you know, looking back you were an awesome parent." Shooting for the moon to gain their approval as they grow up is to run the risk of being viewed as a peer instead of as an authority figure, and that's bad news -- besides, if you're trying to get their approval, that's the fastest way to lose it.
posted by davejay at 10:05 PM on October 29, 2007

treat him like he's an adult

I think a better phrasing of this is "treat him with respect." That is, you're still going to be setting boundaries and teaching him and protecting him, so he's not an adult; but you also need to listen to him and support him and forgive him, and that's about respect.
posted by davejay at 10:07 PM on October 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

but I doubt I'll meet the little guy before Halloween.

That's a shame; if you could meet him ON halloween, that would be best. You show up in a wacky costume, but you don't flaunt it (except as it's making him giggle); instead you tell him how much you love his costume.

You also carry extra candy in your pockets, and every time you hit a house where nobody's home, you pull a candy bar out of their mail slot the way you would a nickel from his ear, and tell him they left it there for him.

(note to self: remember to do this with my 2-year-olds on wednesday)
posted by davejay at 10:10 PM on October 29, 2007

Another thing to add is that children that age almost universally love to "help" with cool adult projects, whether it's baking cookies or sculpting or cleaning the bathroom or braiding a horse's mane. If there's something you do/like to do with your hands, preferably something that delivers an interesting result, let the kid in on it! The kid doesn't need to be in on everything - obviously, you're not letting a four year old take the hot pan of cookies out of the oven. But they can measure and pour in the salt and baking soda and sugar and butter and chocolate chips, and they can -definitely- lick the spoon clean!

The trick to these sorts of cooperative endeavors is figuring out what they can and can't do (safely!), and splitting up the work so that you get the hard/intricate parts, but they get as much other stuff as they can, so that they feel needed and contributory. Then just talk to them and interact throughout the process, playing the adult by directing them and being vocally appreciative of their help, but staying on their level by making them an equal in the tasks.

And if the opportunity arises for making a mess, and you're not afraid of it, go wild! Four year olds -love- to make messes (food-fight with flour and butter and chocolate chips! Turning from painting a picture to painting each other's faces! Mashing clay into new noses/ears/eyebrows/chins/beards/warts for each other!)
posted by po at 12:31 AM on October 30, 2007

Little enough that you can pick 'em up and swoop 'em around and give endless piggyback rides and tickle them until they're in hysterics.

This! Most kids are very physical creatures and like to be tossed around and such. Word of caution, though: Don't introduce physical games that you can't do over and over and over again. I regret introducing the "Wild Dolphin Ride" to my 4-year-old nephew. I thought my lungs were going to explode!
posted by kamikazegopher at 10:32 AM on October 30, 2007

treat him like he's an adult

I think a better phrasing of this is "treat him with respect."

My phrasing would be "just respond to him instead of the category to which he belongs". Which is how you should deal with adults, too. I remember hating adults who baby-talked to me as a kid, because it just seemed so unnecessary. Just listen to the person who you're supposedly interacting with. What indication was I giving that I wanted to giggle about dolls? Why did this person think I wanted to be a pretty little princess? if they had been paying any attention, they could have seen who I was rather than make assumptions based on my being a little girl.

That's how I talk to kids. Find out what they're into, and to whatever extent you want to indulge them, play along. I find that usually smiling and physical play (not aggressive, and being low to the ground so you're not a giant leaning in) makes you more friendly, but generally let them lead. Also I think being relaxed and casual is much better than being overly focused or trying too hard, because then you kind of come off fake. And kids (like animals) always pick up on fake.
posted by mdn at 11:30 AM on October 30, 2007

Play video games with him?
posted by philosophistry at 11:33 AM on October 30, 2007

I know he's only 4, but yeah, being into whatever's trendy with him will work.

My neighbor's kid (age 15) had an iPod Nano 1st gen. (I'm still holding onto my Mini.) My 60+-year-old mom got a 2nd-gen Nano. He was so embarrassed that she had a better Nano than he did that he sold his Nano to a friend and bought the 3rd-gen one. But he's always asking us for help in running iTunes and downloading and such.

His younger sister is 12, and I have hung out with her and a friend of hers a few times because I have a Nintendo DS just like they do. (I'm 27.) We'll play the network mode on Animal Crossing, for example.

It may be relevant to add that I've known (and babysat for) both these kids since they were born.
posted by IndigoRain at 2:46 PM on October 30, 2007

For a four year old boy, you can't go wrong playing cars. Either racing them or crashing them.

(For a four year old girl, you can't go wrong playing dress-up, especially if you can find your old prom dress and let her put on makeup.)
posted by happyturtle at 5:49 PM on October 30, 2007

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