Rosie, a nanny friend and I were sitting in an adorable Mexican restaurant when she asked me how to approach the fights her nanny kids had been having. I modeled some empathetic phrases she could use when the older sister feels hurt as well as some ways to hold each child accountable for their actions. After talking through several scenarios, Rosie said: "So, I need to be sincere!"
I was struck by the clarity in this aha! moment. Be sincere. Yes, that's it exactly.
It reminded me of a statement I often use when training childcare staff: "You don't need to try to sound like a therapist to talk to kids about their feelings." Nor do you need to sound like a syrup-sweet preschool teacher to talk to kids about their art projects. Nor do you need to sound like an authoritative principal to talk to kids about misbehavior.
It's better to sound like you.
The best example I ever heard of such sincerity was a coworker, Matt on the phone with a 12 year old who hadn't shown up for an after school activity. (We were in cubicles so it was easy to hear the whole conversation.) Matt said: "You didn't come to after school today. pause. How come?"
Simple right? But here's what floored me and what changed the way I talk to kids. Matt's voice sounded warm, confident and calm. He didn't say much. And after he asked the question he listened for the answer.
His voice was not: judgmental, accusatory, whiny or distracted. This kid heard: Matt cares that I didn't show up and wants to know why. He is not going to let me ditch and get away with it. He wants me to come next time.
That's what I'm after with kids. I want them to hear in my voice that I care how they're feeling or that I'm curious why they hit another kid or that I'm interested in what they're building with blocks. I want them to hear me being real, not me going through the motions. Because I believe that a connection between the real me and the real them is super powerful. It's what truly hold kids accountable, what encourages or what consoles them. And as Rosie realized so clearly, the key to connecting with kids (with anyone) is sincerity.