Why You Feel So Awkward Talking To A Child

Recently, I was left alone to supervise a two-year-old child for roughly 120 minutes — I know the exact amount of time because I was watching the clock, diligently. At the moment, I'm not directly related to any children. The only experience I have interacting with them is based on my experience being a child and the few times a year when I see my cousins' kids. So, I feel like I'm really bad at it.

This kid and I share some blood, so in theory, this was set up to be chill. She's not super talkative, which was ideal for this babysitting sesh, and she's also cute to look at! "Um so, what's up?" I asked her in earnest. I got nothing in return, which isn't great for someone who searches for validation in the faces of grown adults while speaking to them. It turns out my cousin's kid isn't a total jerk, she's just a kid.

If you're an adult who has no exposure to kids, like me, then it's certainly normal to feel awkward talking to one, according to Yamalis Diaz, PhD, a child psychologist at the Child Study Center at NYU Langone Health. Most people don't know what to talk about with kids, so they don't bother trying. "They probably at times underestimate how much kids actually can understand and engage in a reciprocal relationship," Dr. Diaz says. "They don’t attempt it, and it becomes an awkward or quiet interaction between them and a child."

But kids actually can have conversations, even at as young as two years old. You just have to steer them, Dr. Diaz says. Given that, ahead are some tips from Dr. Diaz for how to talk to a kid without feeling like a robot.

And as for the rest of my time with my cousin? We took selfies and watched The Lion Guard.

Don't start interviewing them.

Bombarding a kid with questions (What's your favorite color? How do you like school? Do you like cookies?) is the easy way out, but it will usually close the conversation pretty fast, Dr. Diaz says. "Eventually kids are able to answer those questions with one-word answers, and it's not a conversation about anything they really want to talk about," she says. Also, would you want to answer all those questions about yourself? Probably not.
Reflect what they say.

One of the easiest ways to spark a conversation with a kid is to reflect what they're saying back to them, Dr. Diaz says. "So, it’s really a repetition of whatever the child just said right before you extend the conversation," she says. For example, if a kid says, "My grandma makes cookies for Christmas," you could reply saying, "Oh, wow! Your grandma makes cookies for Christmas. I make cookies for Christmas, too. My favorite cookies are chocolate chip — what kind of cookies does your grandma make?"

At this point, it's totally cool to ask questions, because you've already started talking, Dr. Diaz says. "In addition, you’ve communicated to the child that you’re actually listening so they’ll keep talking," she says. If you follow this plan, it'll legitimately sound like you're having a conversation, but in fact, you’re just following their lead and going wherever the conversation happens to be going, she says.
Be prepared to switch topics.

Kids have shorter attention spans than adults, so they might genuinely lose interest in whatever you're talking about, Dr. Diaz says. Or it might just be a boring topic for them to talk about, she says. Not to mention, there could be other distractions swirling around them that are just more interesting than you. "Thinking of a topic to talk about is kind of like shooting darts," she says. So, think on your feet and be prepared to pivot accordingly.
Start with, "A lot of kids tell me..." or, "When I was a kid..."

If you reach their threshold on a topic, one way you can start a completely different conversation is by starting with the phrase, "A lot of kids tell me..." and then add a question. For example, you could say, "A lot of kids tell me they like to play Minecraft, do you play that?" or "When I was a kid I loved Minecraft, do you like that game?" Using a starter statement that they can relate to will make them more interested in answering your question, Dr. Diaz says. (Also, pro tip: Minecraft is apparently very in right now.)
Describe — don't direct.

Studies have shown that when you describe what's happening to a kid or in your surroundings, conversations last longer and a kid's vocab can increase, Dr. Diaz says. For example, if a kid is drawing, you could say, "Wow, you added a hat on the doggy! Now you're coloring his fur all brown," she suggests. "The child believes my attention is completely on them," she says.

Many people tend to direct kids, or tell them what to do, which usually makes kids shut down, Dr. Diaz says. "They will sort of get more attention out of that interaction, because they feel nice that you’re just watching what they're doing, as opposed to telling them what to do," she says.
Make yourself the butt of a joke.

Humor goes a long way with kids, and the easiest thing to do is just make yourself the punchline of a joke, Dr. Diaz says. So, you could say something like, "Oh man! I spilled on my shirt, I'm so silly!" and kids will love it. "Even if it's not true or I’m being silly, they find that funny and they’ll want to engage with you more," she says.
Remember: kids really want to talk to you.

While it may feel hard to believe, kids crave attention from adults, so chances are they do want to talk to you, Dr. Diaz says. "The number one rule we believe in psychology is that kids will work for adult attention any chance they get," she says. "Adult attention is one of the biggest forms of currency that they're looking for and trying to get rewarded by — other than technology of course." So, even if talking about a boring coloring book page isn't your idea of a fun conversation, do it for the kids.