Children are a species – and a law – unto themselves and, when your friends’ families start to expand, you have three choices;
- Avoid the entire family like the plague. This is quite a dramatic option, to be honest.
- Avoid the children only. This would be awkward, as the family come as a package.
- Accept the children; make them part of your relationship with their parents.
I have friends who are now parents – I’m 37 years old, it would be more unusual if I didn’t – and I am very much in camp number 3. If I want my friendships to continue, then it’s down to all of us to figure out how we’re going to make this adjustment to our friendship work.
I’m not yet a parent, but I can see that it’s really positive for kids to have contact with adults other than their parents who care for and cherish them. When you’re a parent, your priorities change dramatically, with your children becoming your number one consideration. It’s also incredibly important for mum and dad to sustain adult friendships so that they don’t lose their own identities.
I get, therefore, to be Uncle Matthew (or Weird Uncle Matthew, as I was once called, in a way that I took to be a compliment) – but, having made the decision to include the children in my life, I need to work out if the kids like me.
I get a real sense of pleasure when the children and teenagers I know acknowledge me when I come into their house; they might just offer me a smile or a grunt, but that’s all I need to know that they at least recognise that I’m there, and might even be pleased, in their own vague way, to see me. Having toddlers ask me to read them a story, is a true blessing, because that means you’ve made enough of an impact in their minds to matter to them.
But how does anyone engage with a child in the first place? Well, remembering that they’re a human being is a great place to start, with thoughts, feelings, and opinions all of their own. Here are a few thoughts on how to engage properly with children; when I become a dad in the not-too-distant future, I’ll be using as many of these techniques as possible.
- Get down to their level and look them in the eye. Let them feel physically equal to you.
- Talk to Don’t just talk through the parents about them.
- Don’t patronise them. Talk to them like you would anyone else.
- Ask them what they think about something; “Do you like nursery?” through to “What do you think happened in Doctor Who last night?” You might even get an answer that surprises you.
- Don’t lie if they ask a question. Filter your answer, depending on their age, but never lie.
- Reassure them. Tell them they’re doing well.
- Give them jobs to do. Children like to be helpful and feel that they’re making an impact.
- Be straightforward. Don’t waffle; just say whatever it is you want to say.
- If they want to tell or show you something, let them. It doesn’t matter what it is, but the fact they’re choosing to share something with you is a wonderful experience.
- Don’t try too hard. Children can sense this, so just be yourself. They’ll choose who they want to speak to, and they’ll often choose people who accept them.
- Be silly. Kids interpret the world in their own way. I’ve had conversations about snakes, dinosaurs, cushions, patterns, art, and Peppa Pig. I’ve been “stung”, chased round the dining room, played hide and seek, I’ve tickled, I’ve been pulled to the floor, and been jumped over.
- Don’t ask boring questions such as, “What did you do at school?” Options make things easier: “Aliens from Mars or humans?” or “Do you prefer art or ICT at school? Why?”
- Just be yourself. Don’t put on airs and graces. Be interested, and treat them as human beings.