How To Talk To A Kid — Even If You're Not A 'Kid Person'

If you’re not a parent or in a job where you’re talking to kids every day, finding yourself face-to-face with a child can feel unnerving. What are you supposed to say to them? Do they even speak the same language?

You don’t need any experience in parenting or teaching to make a positive connection with a kid in your life. You, too, were a child once upon a time, and if you can tap into those memories and find some common ground, you’ll be able to hold a real conversation with the next kid who pops up beside you at a wedding, family reunion or your coworker’s desk.

We asked a couple of people who are experts in talking to kids about their tips for making conversation.

Get Down On Their Level

Literally, that is. If you’re standing, try coming down into a squatting or kneeling position so you’re both comfortably at eye level. This can help put a child at ease.

“Sometimes we can forget the impact that we have on a young person,” said Mitru Ciarlante, senior director of youth safety and well-being at Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, a program that matches young people with mentors.

It’s important to remember “how powerful the adult appears from the child’s point of view,” Ciarlante told HuffPost.

Addressing children by name is another way to show care and respect; to instill trust with them, you can have someone they know, such as a parent, introduce you.

Pay Attention To Body Language

In addition to listening carefully to their words, look at what a child is telling you nonverbally. These “nonverbal communication cues” might include “facial expressions, pointing, gestures and body language,” Alisha Simpson-Watt, a social worker and clinical director of Collaborative ABA Services, told HuffPost.

You’ll also want to keep in mind what your own body language is communicating. Try to keep it relaxed, and make sure to give the child appropriate personal space.

“If any type of boundary crossing happens too early, the young person is very likely to just freeze up and shut down right from that point on,” Ciarlante said.

It’s important to keep reading the child’s cues throughout your conversation. While leaning in to listen and making eye contact are often recommended strategies, they might make some young people uncomfortable.

“Try to really pay attention to the young person’s reactions and moderate your responses based on that,” Ciarlante said. “Sometimes we kind of forget how anxious children can be in those kinds of situations with a new person.”

If you’re uncertain whether a goodbye hug is warranted, ask the child to choose: hug, high-five or handshake. This strategy maintains their autonomy and doesn’t force you to make assumptions.

Don’t Rush To Fill In Every Silence

Sometimes kids need a minute to think, or just consider whether or not they want to tell you something.

“Children need time to process what is being said to them, so when you are talking to a child, be patient and give them time to respond,” Simpson-Watt said.

Another thing to avoid is throwing too many questions at them at once.

“That can feel like more of an interrogation,” Ciarlante said.

Instead, she recommended that you begin by sharing something about who you are (“I’m your cousin Kevin’s wife”) or starting from a shared experience (“I think the cake looks delicious. What’s your favorite dessert?”).

Use Kid-Friendly Language

No, there’s not some special “kid-speak” that you need to learn in order to make yourself understood. But you’ll still need to choose your words with your audience in mind.

In general, fewer words are better.

“Use clear and concise language,” Simpson-Watt said. “Use words that are age-appropriate and not putting anyone down to create a positive and safe space for the child.”

In terms of topics, try to think of something that could interest them but won’t likely be triggering. You could say, “I went to the beach last week and found a starfish. What do you like to do at the beach?” or “Have you seen the new Spider-Man movie? Which Spider-Man would you want to be?”

Ask About Things That Interest Them

A child probably doesn’t want to hear a detailed description of what you do for a living or your investment portfolio. Instead, try asking “their favorite color, favorite TV show, favorite superhero, do they have any pets and what do they like to do when it’s sunny outside,” Simpson-Watt suggested. It’s always a good idea to try open-ended questions so you don’t get stuck in a conversational rut of yes-or-no responses.

When they do respond, listen attentively and show your interest with nods, smiles and your tone of voice. Ask follow-up questions, such as which character on a show is their favorite.

“Build on what the child is interested in,” Simpson-Watt said. Also, be careful not to interrupt them while they’re talking.

If you have some lead time before meeting the child, ask what their interests are and what activities they enjoy. If you’ll be caring for them, you might want to plan around a preferred activity, such as baking, painting or walking the dog. Puzzles and games work, too. Side-by-side activities like these offer great opportunities to build relationships.

Even a small gesture to show that you are thinking about them, such as printing out coloring sheets with characters they love, can show a child you care and provide an opening for conversation.

At the end of the day, kids — just like adults — appreciate and respect when you are being your authentic self. There’s no need to try on a completely new personality just because you’ve been called on to babysit. Just be thoughtful, pay attention and follow the child’s lead as to what makes them comfortable.

“Children and teens are definitely people who want to be treated with respect and authenticity,” Ciarlante said.