When I was in college, our family lived next door to a couple who had a 4-year-old son named Aaron. There weren’t any other kids on the block so Aaron would regularly come to our house and try to play with me. We almost always foolishly left our doors unlocked, so Aaron would let himself in and walk up to my room. I was usually watching a movie or playing a video game and would not want to hang out with him. He would stand there talking and asking questions until I would finally give in and go play.
My feelings toward Aaron reflected my feelings towards most kids: they were needy, annoying, and overall hard to relate to.
A couple of years after I graduated, I was asked to help out with a youth group during an event at our church. Despite my attitude toward kids, I decided to go, and to my surprise, I had an absolute blast. The kids were easy to talk to and so much fun play with. It was the opposite experience from before. “What had changed?” I wondered. As I reflected back, I saw that I had done one big thing differently:
I treated the kids like they were my equals.
Consider how children are used to being treated by adults, specifically by their parents. In his article, Why You Should Treat Your Child Like an Adult, Brian Davis suggests that some of the common ways parents deal with their children are actually condescending. For the more daring among us, he suggests you try this experiment with your significant other:
- Give seemingly arbitrary orders without any context or reasoning (“Don’t touch that.”)
- Ignore feedback (“Do you want to go to the park? No? Well, we’re going to the park anyway.”)
- Ask rhetorical questions in a passive-aggressive fashion (“Do big boys cry?”)
- Respond to frustration with more orders (“Stop pouting.”)
- Deny autonomy at every opportunity (“Let me do that for you. You’ll hurt yourself.”)
- Impose arbitrary punishments (“Keep that up, and I’m taking away your car keys.”)
Be serious about it, just as if you were talking to a child. If, after a week of this treatment, you and your significant other haven’t had at least one bitter argument, then you are either extremely lucky or already mired in a dysfunctional relationship.
This helped explain why I had such a hard time relating to my neighbor Aaron (and other kids for that matter). I wasn’t his parent, but I treated him as if he was below me. If he asked questions I didn’t want to answer, I would dismiss them. If he wanted to understand something, I would ignore him. But when I started to treat kids like they were smart and important, the connection was instant. Instead of being ignored or talked down to, they felt highlighted and elevated.
Bringing kids up to your level may seem difficult at first but it is possible. Here are some practical ways that I have seen done this with children:
- Intentionally go and sit or stand next to them. In a large setting with other adults, children are often “tagging along” and will likely be ignored unless others go talk to them. Moving yourself to their area shows purpose.
- Introduce yourself and convey an interest in talking with them.
- Ask for their name and make it a point to use it and remember it.
- Ask them questions that you might ask a college student (how was your day, what do you do for fun, what classes do you like at school?)
- Offer to do something fun together (play a game, go somewhere nearby)
- Take an interest in whatever they’re interested in. Kids love to show you their favorite toy or something they created.
- Look for and highlight ways in which you’re similar. “I love that […] too!” “I feel the exact same way!”
As you can see, you don’t have to change much when you relate to children. If anything, you just have to refrain talking to them in that annoying, high-pitched voice that makes them feel like they are 3. Obviously, it helps if you can simplify your language and use clear concepts, but overall you can treat them like you would anyone else.
You also do not have to be “good with children” to talk with them. No child has ever been upset because I tried to get to know them. Even if I wasn’t particularly good at it, they didn’t care. They were just happy someone talked to them.
I’ve come to believe that human beings have needs to be seen and heard and understood. These needs seem almost as important as food, water, and sleep. I’ve found that children have these same needs, but are chronically being overlooked and ignored, especially by adults who are not their parents.
What if we applied the golden rule – treating others as you want to be treated – to children as well as other adults? Could it mean the difference between connecting with kids and alienating them?