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Before I had my son, I was never very good with kids. They’re like these weird, short people who don’t make any sense, don’t follow social cues, and are somehow always sticky. They’re unpredictable. Sometimes they scream and hide if you make eye contact with them and sometimes they want to sit on your lap before they even know your name.
This is all to say, I’m not one of those “born-to-be-a-mom” people. I’m more of a “learning-on-the-job” mom. And learn on the job I have. My son is two and a half and I am now, officially, awesome with kids. So I wanted to pass on some simple advice for the kid-clueless or kid-averse. Here’s my short list of tips for dealing with kids when you’re not a kid person.
- Watch the parents. When in doubt, look to the parents for clues about how to interact with their kids. They spend the most time with them, so they know what they respond to. If they’re letting him do a lot of stuff on his own, you’ll get a better reaction if you sit back a bit. If they’re more in his face, helping him and interacting, then you can do that, too, if it appeals. In any case, the kid will probably react better if you style your interactions after those of the parents.
- Distract them. The average kid has the attention span of a goldfish. This is annoying, but can also be an advantage. If a kid is doing something you don’t like (i.e., trying to feed you peanut-butter crackers with biohazard hands) or saying something you don’t understand in unintelligible kid-English, you can change what’s happening by asking them about colors or chickens or, really, anything at all.
- Talk to them like they aren’t kids. If you’re not sure how to talk to kids, just pretend they’re grown-ups. No need to force out awkward baby talk, a kid is happy with a simple “I have a dog at home, too. He’s a collie mix,” or even just a “Cool story, bro.” You don’t need to dumb it down if it makes you uncomfortable.
- Or, just ignore them! If you’d prefer not to engage at all after “hello,” it’s really okay to just ignore them. Before I had a kid, I would have never done this. It would have felt totally rude and terrible and even if the kid wouldn’t be offended, I would have assumed the parents would be. But now that I’m a mom, I sometimes wish people would spend more time ignoring my kid. There’s nothing more frustrating than the person I’m talking to having to restart their sentence fifty times because they feel obligated to say, “Yes, your shorts are red,” to my toddler over and over again. And it’s totally unnecessary. Turns out little kids have their own lives and their parents know that. Tune them out and they’ll find something else to do.
However you choose to interact with these mysterious creatures, the important thing to remember is that the stakes are probably a lot lower than you think they are. So relax, be yourself, and enjoy the weirdness coming your way!
Aubrey Hirsch is the author of Why We Never Talk About Sugar. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Rumpus, Brain, Child Magazine and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter: @aubreyhirsch.