How to be a ‘Kid Whisperer’

You know how inspiring it can be to watch Cesar Millan work his magic with dogs, or see Buck Brannaman (the real-life Robert Redford character in The Horse Whisperer) soothe an unmanageable horse. It’s almost as if there’s some magic connection that you can’t see or hear. You know it’s there, but it transcends the physical events taking place. Man and animal truly get each other on an unfathomable level. And, as a friend of mine who hired Cesar to cure her damaged pup confirmed, it’s not transferrable.

Though you may not share the animal magic of those two guys, I’m here to tell you that you can cultivate it with your kids — and with other people’s kids, too. I’m not talking about the discipline, alpha dog part — that’s a topic for another day. I’m talking about how to create a connection with children that will make you a natural kid magnet. Here are 6 simple tools to help get you there.

SMILE — a lot. A smile opens up your face. Then it goes one step further and opens up your heart to invite kids in. Have you ever been in line at the market behind a baby in a cart while Mom is busy checking out the groceries and kidlet is busy checking you out? Give that kid a big ol’ goofy grin and nine times out of ten he’ll grin back. You’ve hooked him, and from that moment on until Mom rolls the cart out of sight, his eyes are likely to stay locked on yours. He may even kick off a game of hide ‘n seek (eyes open, eyes closed, because if he can’t see you he assumes you can’t see him). All because of a smile.

I’ve fallen in love with scores of kids that way, and I dare say they were feeling it, too.

Some of us have facial expressions that naturally fall into a smiley position, but others don’t. It sometimes takes a bit of practice to make it feel natural. Get in front of a mirror and smile away until it’s real, because you can’t fake it with kids. They can see right through you. And don’t be afraid to look silly. Kids LOVE silly.

Get down to where they are. Imagine how it must feel to always have to look up at big, scary grown-ups. At 5’2″, I have an idea. It can make it hard to feel strong and confident. It can be demeaning, and makes you feel insignificant.

Kneel down and meet them at eye level. That doesn’t mean you always want to look them directly in the eye; some kids are freaked out by that, so feel it out gently at first, but be where they are. They’ll let you know when they’re ready for full-on eye contact.

Long ago, in my former life as a preschool teacher fresh out of college, the school director hired a teacher’s aide with dwarfism. She was short. In fact, she was pretty close to the height of my 4-year-olds. I was consumed with worry about how and if they’d accept her. Would they be confused? Challenge her authority? Have nightmares?

As it turned out, they LOVED her. She was just their size with a self-confidence that was enviable. She melded with the program seamlessly, and after a couple of weeks one little boy asked her, “Miss Debbie, are you a kid or a grown-up?” Priceless.

DON’T do baby talk. Baby talk is for babies (and even that’s a stretch), not for preschoolers or, even worse, children who are small for their age. Try to treat each kiddo as an individual and be as age-appropriate as possible.

No self-respecting child wants to be spoken to in a sing-song tone of voice. Speak as you would to an adult. It sends the message that you take them seriously and recognize their personhood. Say this to your niece, after giving her the most outrageously frilly dress-up dress you could find on the Disney web site: “You are so beautiful in that princess gown! Did you wear it to preschool school again today? I’ll bet everyone loved it”. Not that: “Ooh my boo boo looks so sweet in oodles of pink ruffles! Are you the cutest princess in the whole wide world?” Get the difference?

In this same category — don’t talk about children, as if they’re not in the room, or over them, as if they don’t understand the language you’re speaking. They’re not pets, they’re people.

Respect their personal space. Emphasis on respect. You wouldn’t like it if someone walked up to you and swooped you up off the ground with no warning, and little guys don’t like it either. This does NOT go for your own children of course, who always expect to be handled by you, but applies pretty uniformly to others, particularly those you don’t know well.

Instead, get down on their level (see above) and engage with them first. Once they make eye contact, respond to you, and are pretty comfortable, you’re in a better position to know whether they’d like to be held.

At around 7 months most babies develop some stranger anxiety and don’t particularly like to be held by anyone who’s not in their inner circle. You know this from your own babies. Don’t rush in and grab these little ones out of Mom’s arms, no matter how tempting it is. First, ask if it’s OK … with baby.

Be curious and ask real questions — skip “do you like your teacher?”. It’s not always easy to engage in conversation with someone else’s child. Some are naturally outgoing, while some tend to be shy and hang back, but if you ask questions that demonstrate you really want to hear about them, it creates the space for them to open up. Examples: What’s your doll’s (or stuffed animal’s) name? What’s your favorite book? Would you show me your room? Your best toy? I love spaghetti — what kind of food do you like?

Cultivate a few short (clean) jokes and riddles. The sillier, the better. They’re the perfect ice-breaker with kids. Ask them to share theirs with you and add them to your repertoire.

With your own kids, try to stay away from “how was school today?” The only answer you’re likely to get is … “fine”. Be as specific as you can, and ask about a favorite (or un-favorite) teacher or friend. The goal is to get ’em talking. The Roses and Thorns game is a good one. Ask your child to describe one good thing that happened and one not-so-good thing. Then you do the same.

See the world through a kid’s eyes. Kidsworld is a magical place, and sometimes we get so caught up in the day-to-day tasks of parenting that we forget how special and amazing it is. Step back. See the world as if it’s the first time and appreciate the spontaneous beauty, because they surely do.

Fred Rogers, of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood fame, was an expert at this. He stepped effortlessly into that magical world, and kids knew it. If you get the chance, take a look at some old episodes of the show. He was old fashioned and innocent and wise, and children of a certain age were mesmerized by him. Mamas, too.

But then he was a kid whisperer.

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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