Chatting and Atrocities (advice column #1)

Q: I need advice about starting conversations with young children. An easy ploy, it seems, is to remark on something they’re wearing. But I don’t want to reinforce the idea that their appearance is the most important thing about them. Are there any good, universal ice-breakers?


Stuck for Small Talk

A:  Dear Stuck,

Good you for wanting to interact well with kids.  Often adults choose to either ignore small children or treat them as if they are little clowns (except for not being terrifying).  

One of my tenets of being with young children is that their age does not tell you that much more about them than it does about us, and thus they should be interacted with  maximally like you would anyone else. Your question is good, though, because small talk is an area where the differences between us and kids is salient, primarily for this reason:  These people do not have jobs. They do nothing for work. Not even a damn internship.  They don’t even understand jobs, except some vague notion that it involves computers and money.  Their future employment plans often  include ‘superhero’ or ‘fish’. Also, you can not ask them where they grew up ( because, you know, that not- having- grown- up -yet thing).  I also do not recommend asking where they are from as I suspect many children will think the right answer involves their mother’s genitals. So then, what do you ask an adult if you have reason to think that they may not have a job, and you already know where they are from?  I think the same questions should work, with adjustments the vocabulary; “What do you do for fun?” works (but not “what do you do with your free time”.  Again, these people do not have jobs), As would, “What movies/books do you like?” or “What do you love to eat”?


There is another option, and a more fun one, I think:   Take advantage of a young child’s lack of socialization into conversational norms by  just bluntly stating things about yourself. Kids do it all the time, and see nothing odd about it.  You can walk up to a child and say, “ I think porcupines are super-cool”, and they will either be like “me too!  Yeah, let’s talk about porcupines forever” or “What! No, they are yucky!” But either way, you will be talking. ( That last example only works if you are actually into porcupines.  You will just seem like a lying weirdo if you can’t back it up with real porcupine knowledge.). It doesn’t have to be anything like porcupines. That said, animals are a good opening subject. Almost every child is quite in them.  You probably have something even better than words to use the conversation, too- the photos on your phone. With the parent’s permission (people have all sorts of stuff about screen time), ask if the kid wants to see a picture of your pet or the porcupine you follow online ( btw his name is Teddybear.  I love him. This part is actually  just about me). Those things should work. They might not though, because some kids are just as bad at small talk some adults are.


P.S.  Another tip for chatting with kids: Don’t believe what they tell you..these people are full of shit a lot of the time,  but no need to call them on it, either. Make it a imrov-y ‘yes, and..” kinda’ thing, and you should both have fun.


Q: Do Pre-School kids have any concept of school shootings? I’m not suggesting you bring the subject up in pre-school. I was more looking to see if any child had awareness, how does a teacher handle this in a room full of 3-5 year olds…especially if it is brought up during “sharing time”.


A: How shitty is it that this is a good question?  Very shitty, that’s how shitty.  And yet, one of my favorite preschool stories is on this subject:  It takes place years ago, when the horrors of the world were further away from my students and me than they are now.  For shooter drill we had an agreed upon code, calling it a ‘baby deer’ drill, and told the children that we needed to be really quiet and go away from the windows

...wait.. I just  need to point out how sick even writing about this makes me.  Fuck the NRA and every fucking thought and prayer from fucking politician who refuses to acknowledge the cancer that is this nation’s gun fetish and that every single other right has corollary regulation sand the right to life is more important than…   Oookay..breath, Leah...

So,   We told them we were being quiet to avoid scaring a baby deer and it’s mom outside.  We decided we were not going to mention anything violent or scary, because, we figured, why introduce them to this terror sooner than needed. In the three/four year old class they are doing the drill, telling about the deer, when one child pipes up,  “There’s a deer?  At my cousin’s school they do this exact same thing to practice for if there is a bad guy with a gun!”

We don’t do the deer story anymore.  Now when we do those drills,we say we’re practicing safety, and children typically don’t have any follow up questions. When they do have questions, though, and when they share at meeting time what they know about the news, here’s the technique I practice: Don’t lie, but only answer the questions they ask.   That is, when a child shares at group time that a bad guy killed some children, I might say, “I heard about that too. It makes me sad.” and leave space for someone else to share about it. They might, but odds are, another child will say something like “I’m going to the swimming pool today!” and we will be off and running talking about swimming.  I don’t mean to silence the scary conversation, or be glib about it, but I also think more harm than good comes from my guessing about what they need to hear from me, because I really might guess wrong. I can tell them for sure I love them, and I can say for sure that we are all, right now, safe. I can’t say we will always be safe, but unless someone asks for promises about the future, I’m not bringing it up.  I would then share with their parents about what we discussed, and let them follow up at home in a way that works for them.


I’m not protecting them from bad news to protect their goodness.   I don’t believe in preserving children in a natural state of moral purity, because I do not think there is such a thing.  I don’t think being younger makes people nicer.  I think they are interested in violence and what power it can give them and others even if they never hear the news.  I avoid talking about horrors unless needed because I don’t think anyone in the world should ever be distressed unnecessarily. The worst part of being a parent for my biological child continues to be admitting to her the continued depravity of the world I brought her into.  It makes me feel guilty. Kids, though, are often less distressed by this stuff then we fear they might be, and often less distressed than we are. That is not so much because of their sweet good natures, It is because of their ignorance of complexities and their self-centeredness. For most of them, all ‘somewhere elses’ are equally far away. All ‘befores’ equally the past. Yes, the lastest school shooter is a scary bad guy.  So are Pharoh and Haman. They know about bad guys and good guys. the play it all the time. They aren’t as upset about bad guys as I am, though. It’s because they believe that they would know a bad guy at first sight, and that they, as powerful good guys, would defeat the bad guy. Sadly we are burdened with the knowledge of our own weakness, and that a good guy’s uniform or a bad guy’s trench coat makes nothing clearer.