If you haven’t yet seen Saturday Night Live’s “Duolingo for Talking to Children” sketch, we highly recommend it. It’s funny because it’s true: Talking to kids can be surprisingly intimidating. Should I ask them about school? Doesn’t everyone ask them about school? Wait, are they even old enough to be in school?
Guess their age
Let’s start with that last part first. Before you have kids, particularly if you weren’t around little kids much as a child or young adult, it can be incredibly difficult to guess a child’s age just by looking at them. Even now, I struggle with this because my son runs on the tall size for his age and has friends who run on the small size and you might think these kids were 2-3 years apart just by looking at them.
That brings me to my best tip for guessing a child’s age, which actually comes from the mother of Lifehacker Managing Editor Virginia Smith: “My mum’s rule (she’s a teacher) is to guess older because kids like that,” she says. And her mum is right. Guess a kid is four years old when they’re really five (and a half) and you’ve just delivered a blow to their big-kid self-esteem. Guess they’re six or seven, though, and they feel like a total badass.
For extra fun—and if you’re honestly not sure you’re going to pick a high enough number—exaggerate. For a five-year-old, say something like, “Wow, you’ve gotten so big since the last time I saw you! What are you, like, 13 years old now??” They’ll think you’re silly, plus they’ll love the thought of actually being 13, and you’ve officially won them over.
This one can be tricky, as the skit points out, because we have a ridiculous tendency as a society to compliment girls for their looks (you’re so pretty!) and boys for their abilities (you’re so strong!). You know what’s better? Complimenting them on their sense of style or their creations. Like, their “cool backpack,” their “fancy shoes,” their “beautiful artwork” or their “amazing dance moves.”
Pick out something that seems to have a little flair or otherwise hints at their personality and gush over it.
Have a chatterbox sitting across the table from you? You might not have to do much of the heavy-lifting at all. Just listen, stay engaged and ask a follow-up question or statement, such as, “Oh yeah? Then what happened?” or, “That sounds fun—tell me more!” Kids spend much of their time in a classroom with 20 of their peers; even at home with a better adult-to-child ratio, they’re probably not getting all the attention they crave. Any undivided attention you give them is a gift, and doesn’t require much effort on your end.
If the child is more reserved, you could try jumpstarting the conversation by asking them about some of their favourite topics (“Learned about any new dinosaurs since the last time I saw you?”) or something newsworthy in their life (“I heard there’s going to be another Minions movie coming out next year!”). If they’re just not into it, though, you can always go back to the previous section—“Cool backpack!”—and call it a day.
Give them a high five
If the kid simply doesn’t want to talk to you, you have no idea what else to say, or the conversation is winding down, it’s time to ask them for a “high five.” It’s a thing kids love to do, it’s something they happily practice all the time, and it’s a great way to signal an end to the conversation.
For extra points, do like my husband always does—give a little yelp and shake your hand, as though their tiny four-year-old high five was enough to actually sting your big ol’ grown-up paw. This makes them 1. feel very pleased with themselves and 2. laugh at your silliness and 3. conclude that you’re awesome.