Juhl: How to engage in small talk with kids without asking The Question

“What are you going to be when you grow up?” is most people’s small-talk fallback, but older kids will see through the jibber-jabber.

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I am a nurse-astronaut-war correspondent.

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No I’m not.

“What are you going to be when you grow up?” is most people’s small-talk fallback as they’re trying to connect with kids. If you’d asked me back in elementary school, the answer would be one of those three things. And that’s fine. I still kind of want to be an astronaut.

You’ve probably asked a child the same thing gotten an answer like “sandwich-maker” or “slime-eating monster” more often than “financial adviser.” I bet their responses changed every time you asked. There’s a thing that happens, maybe around 10 years old, maybe not till later, when that standard question is not only awkward, it’s meaningless. Older children see through the jibber-jabber, will give you their stock answer and wonder how long they have to wait before checking their phone.

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What are you supposed to do instead? Ask how school’s going? That can be a dumpster fire, too, if the child is struggling with grades, changing COVID restrictions, bullying, teacher conflict and stuff like that. Next. Try not to ask teenagers how old they are. They know their answer is going to lead to assumptions about their maturity and where they’re expected to be at this point in their life and frankly they don’t need the extra pressure.

That’s a lot of don’ts, which aren’t always helpful. Try this instead: “Whatcha up to?”

Their responses will give you a hint of what they’re into and you might stumble onto common ground or learn something new. If they start describing their Minecraft world and you have no idea what they’re talking about, ask them. Kids, just like adults, love to talk about themselves and their passions. Just like adults, they’re learning their passions aren’t necessarily lifelong commitments, which relieves the pressure of “how are you going to spend the rest of your life scraping out a living a few years from now?” Just like adults, they’re aware of and concerned about the world, so talking about news events is another good in.

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Whoa, waitasec, are you having a conversation? Well done, even if you never find out what they want to be when they grow up. If their interests match yours, you’ve got the rare opportunity to help them along their path.

Or have you stalled out? Was the answer “not much”? Yeah, we feel you, we know what it’s like to get snubbed.

Don’t panic and pull out a trite “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” That’s poppycock; doing something you love — and making a living from it — can be heartbreakingly hard work. Don’t lie to children.

Sometimes kids don’t feel like talking to us. You’re doing a great job trying, no matter how you go about it. Just don’t push too much; back off if they clearly have other things to do. Oh, you want to try one more time? OK, we’ve got one more trick up our sleeve. Pay close attention, because this is one you can pull out at any dinner party with people of all ages, from toddlerhood up. Everyone has an opinion and any controversy it stirs up is (almost) guaranteed to liven up your shindig:

“What’s your favourite dinosaur?”

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