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Kids, part 1: first contact


(First in a planned series of posts about my interactions with friends' kids.)

I didn't have much to do with kids until my friends started having them.

A couple of years after college, a few friends of mine had babies. I had never really interacted much with babies before that, and it kind of freaked me out. In particular, for the first while I got very very stressed when a baby would scream; there's a certain kind and quality of scream that at a gut level caused me to panic, a sort of DROP EVERYTHING SOMEONE IS DYING! reaction.

But eventually I learned that nobody was dying, and I got used to the screaming.

And sometime around then, I noticed that a standard way for a romantic comedy to show the female lead that the male lead was a good prospective mate was to show him being Good With Kids. She sees him letting his guard down and being playful and fun with kids (hers, his, and/or someone else's), and suddenly it's clear that he's The One. (The first movie where I remember noticing that was One Fine Day, but that was 1996, and I kinda think I was familiar with that trope a few years earlier.)

So I'm sorry to say that I initially approached interacting with kids with that in mind. I like to think I wasn't quite as mercenary about it as I'm making it sound, but I don't remember what my exact frame of mind about it was. But regardless of my exact thoughts, to at least some small degree I figured that learning to be good with kids would probably make me at least a little more attractive to prospective partners.

(It didn't occur to me at the time that it would specifically make me more attractive to prospective partners who wanted someone to raise kids with, which has never been what I was looking for. So it was probably kinda counterproductive in that regard, but anyway.)

It also occurred to me at some point that if my friends were going to keep having kids, it behooved me to learn how to get along with said kids, because the kids weren't going away anytime soon, and the parents were frequently distracted by them. (The first of my friends to have a baby told me at one point that the kid had eaten her brain; and for the first couple of years, I felt like it was nearly impossible to say more than about two consecutive sentences anywhere near a baby or toddler without being interrupted by said kid.) And so if I wanted to keep those friends as part of my life, the kids were part of the deal.

Regardless of my motivations, I soon found two things:

  • Kids, by and large, tended to like me.
  • I liked them too.

I found out that holding a baby close can be comforting to both the baby and the adult. I found out that baby smiles are among the most amazing things ever. I found out that I had a fairly high capacity for playing peekaboo, and having my beard tugged on, and making funny faces, and sitting on the floor, and making block towers so they could be knocked down, and making funny noises when poked in the nose, and turning my hands into a pair of tennis-ball-eating jaws, and making coins appear in kids' ears, and so on. And that I liked singing lullabies. (I still hate changing diapers, though, and am still only barely competent at it, after all these years. And I've never been any good at getting kids to eat, or getting them to do things they don't want to do, or lots of other important adult/kid-interaction stuff.) And I found out that a kid explicitly indicating that they like you is one of the best experiences I know of.

I am, of course, conflating years' worth of experiences in that paragraph, and conflating many different ages of kids.

But the above has held more or less true for most of the kids I've known, from babyhood through about age 4.

And then I started to learn something else:

A lot of my kid-interaction skills are nonverbal.

I can happily play with a baby or (say) a two-year-old for quite a while without ever saying a word, or while saying a steady stream of silly stuff for my own amusement. But when they start wanting to interact verbally, things get a lot harder.

Which is funny, because I usually spend those first couple of years thinking, and sometimes saying (as a joke), “If only you could tell us what the matter is! Use your words, kid!”

But then they do start using their words. And they start having complex inner lives, and feelings, and wanting me to play games that involve more than just building towers and knocking them down.

And some of those games are games that I don't enjoy. Which gets tricky. But more on that in another entry.

With various kids, I've gone through a phase, usually sometime during the period when they're about 6 to about 10, of having no idea what to say to them. I don't want to be the clueless grownup who always asks “So what are you learning in school?”; I remember those grownups from when I was a kid, and I was always kind of impatient with them. But when I try to come up with something better, my mind goes blank. With adults, I have pretty good conversational skills (for an introvert); I'm good at asking open-ended questions and listening to what they say and asking followup questions. But with kids (even kids who aren't yet teenagers), sometimes I find it really hard to come up with a question that interests them enough to elicit more than a monosyllable response. And based on my own experience as a kid, I'm pretty sure that they have less than no interest in hearing about my life; it would never have occurred to me when I was a kid to ask any grownup how they were doing.

Sometimes there's something interesting that I can tell them or teach them about. Sometimes there are games to play. Sometimes they'll demonstrate a new skill, like playing the piano or singing or dancing. Sometimes we can sit quietly together and make Lego stuff or draw. Sometimes they actually do want to tell me about something they learned in school or elsewhere. But a lot of the time trying to converse with them feels awkward to me.

But I'm learning that after a certain point, I can often talk with them again, and that point often seems to come with reading.

A dozen of my friends' kids are now in the 9- to 14-year-old age range, and most of them are reading science fiction and fantasy books. Some of them are reading some of the same books I loved as a kid; some of them are reading new books (I really ought to read a couple of those, just to be able to talk about them intelligently); some of them are reading books written by friends of mine, and how cool is that?

I'm oversimplifying here. Books are neither necessary nor sufficient for me to successfully interact with kids.

But they sure do help.

I wrote the above a couple of weeks ago (after writing most of it in my head years ago), and then during a visit to Chicago, I ended up chatting with Kavya, who's about to turn seven. I wrote up the following description in a FB comment, I think, but thought it was worth reposting here:

She asked me to help her find rhymes for “try,” which was a lot of fun. (One example among many: “How about something that you eat? It's circular, and sweet.” “A doughnut?” “Bigger than a doughnut.” “A pizza?” “Smaller than a pizza.” And so on.) Then there were rhymes for other words, and Anand stopped by briefly to participate in the rhyming and was delighted to able to shout “WHACK!” (flailing arms) and “BACK!” (backing into Kavya) to rhyme that sound. Then Kavya and I talked about her wristwatch, which didn't work, and I told her how to look at the hour hand to tell roughly what time it was, and then she spun the hands around and I tried to call out the times she was pointing to at high speed, which made her laugh a lot. Then she sang me several songs from her school musical (and she's getting pretty good at singing). A line from a song (a goat singing “when I was just a kid”) led to teaching her what a pun is; she asked for other examples, and then informed me that they weren't funny.

I think this was probably the longest and most interesting discussion I've ever had with her; it was thoroughly delightful. So this is a rare example of my reaching that can-have-a-fun-conversation-with-them phase without books being involved.


What a terrific, and charming, post.

"a kid explicitly indicating that they like you is one of the best experiences I know of." -> this.

The verbal/nonverbal thing intrigues me. I definitely spend a lot of time with small kids on just the sort of peekaboo activities you mention, but I also do spend a lot of time in dialogue. I mean I actually spent a lot of my day in Chicago talking with Kavi and Anand, and I really like talking to kids that age. So your rumination has me reflecting on what we talk about.

We certainly don't have very many of the sorts of "how was your day?", "how do you feel about that?", "what do you do for a living/want to be when you grow up/study?" conversations that adults often have. Frankly, I often feel kind of stiff and uncomfortable having those conversations with adults, which is one reason I like conversing with small children. I mean, there are in fact adults who are really passionate about their jobs and talk about them with excitement and vigor, in which case I like talking to them about their jobs. But there are a whole lot of adults I find myself in "what do you do?" conversations which I'm pretty sure are boring us both silly.

Some of my conversations with children involve absurd humor, bold statements, and counterfactual claims. Kids are much more willing to go absurd and inventive places in conversation than many adults. I can't recall an immediate example, but, I mean, it would be perfectly reasonable with many small children to discuss my paralyzing fear of salt shakers, or the best method for turning one's teacher into a turtle. I often take the position of knowing very little about the world; for instance, I am quite likely to ask a child what planet they come from, and express surprise that they are native to Earth. Any flight of fancy they offer, I'm likely to elaborate upon and run with.

I also think most kids are far more interested in the here and now than in the past, the future, or abstract notions. What they did at school is not so much an uninteresting question because school is in principle uninteresting (it's not) but rather because if it's 7pm now, school is probably unimaginably long ago and may well feel of very distant relevance. Asking a first-grader how things went in first grade that morning -- unless it was an exceptional morning -- probably feels roughly about as relevant as asking a 40-year-old how their day went in first grade on that same morning 34 years ago. I'm far more likely to discuss with them whatever they are doing right now, which they usually have strong opinions on, whether it's eating, playing, drawing, or whatever. I find myself often quite interested in these opinions. Kids often show me their creations, and I interrogate them. What is this blue squiggle? A horse? Whose horse? What is it doing? I am not humoring them when I ask these things, because I generally find their imaginative worlds far more interesting than those of most adults.

Most adults' skill of opening up an imaginative world in conversation have atrophied. Adults who aren't any sort of artist have often given up on having any imagined world at all; adults who are artists have often turned their imaginative worlds into projects, which at worst are tinged with obligation, pressure, guilt, and fear of failure, and even at best with work.

Another thing kids are quite interested in is how things work. Given half a chance, I will often find myself explaining complex topics in science or history to five-year-olds, which is really not a problem as long as your explanation is driven by their interest and comprehension. Popular rumors to the contrary, kids have longer attention spans than grown-ups. The reason we think they have shorter attention spans is only because they have far less willingness to suffer along humoring other people when things get boring. If they are interested in something they can do it incessantly forever.

Almost all conversations with kids work better when I follow their lead.

Thanks, Ben! Lots of great food for thought there.

I agree about absurdity and inventiveness; that can be a lot of fun. I especially enjoy evoking the "No, that's not right!" reaction from kinds by telling them something silly and obviously untrue. (I think I tend to be a little over-concerned about the obviousness part, maybe because there were things I was told when I was a kid that were (in retrospect) clearly blatantly untrue but that were presented as true; I think it's only fun for me if it's really clear to the kid that we're all being playful.)

I'm especially intrigued by your comments about here-and-now stuff, because I think they run counter to my experience. I think usually when I try to ask kids about the food they're eating, or their art, the conversation very quickly runs out of steam; they don't seem very interested (or don't seem to have much to say), and I struggle to come up with followup questions. I wonder if there's something about your approach that encourages more talking from them, or about my approach that discourages that.

I think similar things happen with explanations. When a kid is really interested in hearing about how something works, I think my conversations with them on such topics tend to go well; but I feel like most of the kids I talk with (in, say, the 6-to-10-year-old range) don't tend to be terribly interested in such things, or at least in hearing about them from me. So again that makes me wonder what's different, if anything, about the way you do it vs the way I do it. I wonder whether our respective default enthusiasm levels are part of it--I suspect your explanations tend to be more enthusiastic and engaged with the material than mine are.

Following their lead definitely makes sense to me--but I feel like even getting the conversation started is hard; if they don't say anything, then there's no lead to follow, and if I say something and they just say "yeah" and stop, then there's still no lead to follow (other than the implicit "that wasn't the right topic/approach").

Anyway, I don't mean this as an argument with what you're saying; your comments were useful, and I'll try and keep them in mind when I'm interacting with kids. Good stuff.

You raise intriguing points. I will closely observe my next interactions with 6-10 year olds (not counting Noah, probably, since I know all his enthusiasms already) and report back here.

I guess one further thought on the here-and-now thing is that I think many adults tend to be rather hands-off with their questions, rather than engaged and challenging. It's like what we really want to hear is that everything is fine, and not to stir anything up; kids are constantly having to reassure adults that everything is fine. We're hands-off with each other, too. But if you want to have an interesting conversation with someone you often have to ask open-ended questions, pry, challenge, pose provocative questions, make yourself vulnerable, risk unpopular opinions, while at the same time showing that you enjoy their company and that there's plenty of room to say all sorts of things without it threatening your connection. This is just as true of kids as of adults.

So the difference between:
"What are you doing?"


"What is that blue thing you're drawing?"
"A jellyfish."
"What is it holding?"
"A light saber."
"Is it a Jedi or a Sith?"
"A Jedi, duh!"
"I feel like in Star Wars it's like the Jedi are good because they don't listen to their feelings and the Sith are bad because they do listen to their feelings. I don't know if that makes sense. Do you?"
"I think maybe Jar-Jar is actually smarter than either the Jedi or the Sith and he's just waiting for them to kill each other so he can have his planet back..."

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