Who knew talking to a 5- (or 15-) year-old could be so hard? When Minecraft, Lego sets, and “Whew, summer reading, huh?” don’t break the ice, here are some trusted tactics from the pros—including a preschool teacher and a theater director. (And if all else fails…ice cream.)
Do Some Reconnaissance.
If you’re going to be with a child you haven’t seen in a while, a little preparation can help lay the groundwork for a good conversation. Before the visit, ask the parents about what’s going on in their child’s life. That way you aren’t starting with “What are you learning in school?” when the kid is, say, having a difficult year. Instead, you can engage her on a specific topic—soccer, for example, or horses or lacrosse. Knowing a few tidbits in advance might lead you to say, “I heard you saw a great movie last weekend. Can you tell me about it?” The same strategy may work for your own kids if they are young or tend to be shy, or if you’re going to visit someone they haven’t seen in a while. I’ll say, “Oh, Aunt Caitlin is going to want to hear about your gymnastics—and, by the way, you may want to ask her about her vacation.” —Christiana Mills, licensed clinical social worker and the coordinator of Yale Child Study Center’s outpatient clinic in New Haven, Connecticut.
Resist the Urge to Fact-Check.
A lot of adults understandably feel a responsibility to teach kids about the world. So if a child is telling us something that is factually inaccurate, we may be compelled to correct him. But it’s more important to affirm kids’ ability to express their thoughts than to nitpick. Recently I was with a few students, looking at a pumpkin that had frozen and thawed and was now a big pile of goo. When I asked what they thought had happened, one kid said, “I think it got so, so big that it exploded.” So I asked him to explain it further. Drawing out his curiosity, rather than jumping in with an accurate explanation, was much more fruitful. —Shea McInerney, teacher at North Shore Nursery School in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts.
Be Into What They’re Into.
You may have had the experience of feeling trapped in a conversation with a child who is talking endlessly about something you don’t care about. When my son was 7, he became interested in HTML code. I’m not really a computer person, so I resisted talking about it. But once I tried to learn why he liked it, I saw that he liked the way the code helped a programmer do so many creative things, like change colors or make columns. Not only did the subject then seem more approachable, but it also—more importantly—became a way for us to connect. —Julie King, coauthor of How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen: A Survival Guide to Life with Children Ages 2–7. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Watch Something Together.
Engaging with the arts—particularly theater and film—is an extraordinary way to start conversations with children. You’re both experiencing something new at the same time, which stirs all sorts of ideas. As a starting point, you can say to them, “Close your eyes and tell me the one thing you remember.” Their perceptions may mirror yours or be wildly different. They could have a completely emotional response—“That character was so sad/silly”—or they might focus on a costume, a color, how the lights moved, a set piece. The possibilities are endless! You can even use the performance to understand the child’s own emotions or experiences. You could ask, “What did you see that you think made the character feel that way? Have you ever felt that way? Tell me a story about someone who’s felt that way.” —Peter Brosius, artistic director of the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis.
Ask Open-Ended Questions.
Who hasn’t asked a teenager “How was your day?” only to get back a terse “Good”? (Another classic: “What did you do?” “Nothing.”) With older kids, you have to be a little creative—no yes-or-no questions. You’ll engage in more dialogue if you ask something like “What topic did you discuss in your core class today?” Then you can ask follow-up questions: “What was your opinion?” That said, if a kid isn’t opening up, it’s OK. Children deserve their space and privacy just like adults. We need to treat them with respect, even if they are not answering us the way we want them to. —Chris Pegula, owner of the Diaper Dude brand and author of Diaper Dude: The Ultimate Dad’s Guide to Surviving the First Two Years. He lives in Los Angeles.