For the last six months, I’ve spent at least twenty hours a week with other people’s kids. Mostly I teach them how to do cartwheels, wait in line, and drink from the drinking fountain without splashing water all over their tiny leotards. Sometimes, I get to just talk to them. They’ve taught me a lot.
1. Kids (and grown-ups) pretty much just want to talk about themselves.
I’ve learned that asking questions is the best way to get a kid talking. When I have a shy kid, I ask them how many toes they have. When kids are early for class and we have a few minutes to kill, I ask them what they had for breakfast. When we’re waiting for a straggler to catch up, I ask if anyone went to a birthday party recently. If you ask how school was, they say “fine”; if you ask what they’re learning about in science class, they light up and give a better answer that leads to more questions. Sometimes you get great answers:
Me: What’s your favorite animal?
Me: What’s your [stuffed] stingray named?
I started asking questions because I was curious. What are school lunches like these days? How many after-school classes are these overworked kids in? What do they do on days off from school? Pretty quickly, I realized it’s a good way to get them talking and engaging with me as a real person, not just someone who demands straight legs and pointed toes.
I’m not a great small talker with people my own age. I’ve learned that “how was your day” or “what do you do” don’t usually spur the greatest conversations. Instead, I’ve started asking what their spirit animal is or what their favorite building in Chicago is or, yes, even what they had for breakfast. These things are just more fun to talk about.
2. Ask why.
When working at the gym, I give a lot of very clear directions like “don’t touch the bar”. Naturally, some mysterious cosmic force will lure at least one chubby little hand into grabbing the aforementioned bar. In moments like this, instead of flopping on my belly and flailing my hands around with exasperated wails like a toddler in a grocery store checkout line, I ask why. Usually, the kid looks at me for a second, then up at the ceiling, and says “I don’t know”. Sometimes they say, “Because I wanted to”. Then I say, “Maybe think before you do it next time”. Then I make them go to the end of the line, because that’s the biggest punishment ever for a little girl that just wants to swing on the bars. I’m not exactly trying to teach them the ways of the world, but I am (hopefully) helping them think through their motives and actions.
When dealing with difficult adults, I’ve adopted the same tactic. When a freelance client got frustrated recently, I asked why instead of immediately getting defensive like usual. She took a moment to think, then explained that she was sick of the back-and-forth and felt like nothing was really moving forward. We talked it out a bit, then tried to move on. The problem wasn’t necessarily solved, but I felt like we made progress (if just mindset-wise). Adults already know how to express their emotions, but they don’t always consciously know what’s making them say the things they say or do the things they do.
3. Make sure they’re listening.
With dealing with three-year-olds, I ask them to put their hands on their bellies if they can hear me. At that moment, it becomes pretty clear who’s listening and who’s not: the one little dumpling staring into space suddenly realizes that she’s the only one with her hands NOT on her belly. With the older ones, I call them out: “Clementine, can you demonstrate that again? I don’t think Katniss was watching”. (Seriously, kid’s names these days.) I save my best trick for little boys and bouncy little girls: they get to hold my hand until they stop doing whatever they’re not supposed to be doing.
With adults, you can’t quite pull the hands-on-your-belly trick. Instead, I make it about me: “Before we leave, can you walk me through the summary again? I want to make sure I noted everything we talked about.” Sometimes, I make it clear that what they just agreed to with a flippant ‘yes’ directly affects them: “Are you sure that you want to go that route? It will most likely significantly add to the total cost.” Once they hear that they might have to pay more, they’re suddenly better listeners. Magic!
4. Pinky promises are binding.
In every class with kids under the age of seven, one of the chocolate-smeared lovable goblins inevitably asks when they can jump in the foam pit as if they are entitled to do so. Usually, I make a deal: if we get through all of the things we’re supposed to get through, we can jump in the pit at the end of class. We check in regularly: are we all being good listeners? Did little Madagascar resist the siren-like calls of the trampoline? We can jump in the pit!
Uh-oh. Did we have to wait three minutes before walking on the balance beams because Chester went rogue and ran around the gym six times before collapsing into a sugar-fueled fit? No pit today. Did Oksana smack Laurent in the face because he wouldn’t scooch down the big purple mat? No pit today.
Some coaches feel guilty and still give the reward anyway. Not me. I’m steely. No amount of four-year-old whining will make me crumble. In fact, whining makes me stronger! Consequences, people. You have to do the same thing with adults. Promises are promises. Did you say you were going to show up to dinner at seven? Be there at seven. Did you tell them that additional revisions will incur additional charges? Charge them, even if they get whiny. It goes both ways. Compromise is good, of course, but certain lines (like ‘sign here’ lines on contracts) need to be drawn.
5. Don’t bring anyone else down.
When you coach five classes right in a row and the first one had three screaming fits, nine trips to the potty, and approximately seven hundred blank stares, it can be really tricky to put on a smile for another group of germ-filled, fully-charged gremlins. It’s tempting to sit down and say, “I’m crabby. Don’t push my buttons”, but kids either don’t understand your immense frustration or take it as a challenge. So put on that fake smile (hey, they can’t tell) and run around like a camel or a unicorn or whatever they’re feeling that day. Energy is contagious. I also usually try something different: if my first class wasn’t feeling forward rolls, I start with cartwheels.
Nothing’s worse than having an awful day and coming home to your roommate/SO/dog having the time of their life. Or vice-versa. I hate having my mellow harshed, and I don’t particularly want to harsh anyone else’s mellow. Sometimes you want to bring someone down into your pit of doom with you, but that’s just going to result in two angry people (or one angry adult and eight confused and unlucky kids). Take a breather, try to let it go, and deal with it later. Of course, any good roommate/SO/dog will want to help you with your problems. Let them, then move on.
Communicating with kids is simple. You’re there to play with them, to teach them, and to protect them. If you’re bigger than them, they literally and metaphorically look up to you. Adults are trickier, especially when you’re used to talking about mermaids and basic shapes most of the time. Be patient and be nice.
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