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A Kid's Guide to Grown-Ups

Child shaking hands with adult

Alexandra Grablewski

In a perfect world, kids would chat amiably with our friends and colleagues -- or at least politely look Mr. Smith in the eye when he asks: "So, Antonia, what grade are you in now?" But interacting with adults can be uncomfortable -- especially for 6- to 8-year-olds. Kids this age are old enough to be self-conscious (and self-critical), but too young to really know what grown-ups actually want from them. There's no question, however, that there are enormous social, emotional, and even educational payoffs for kids who know how to communicate easily and comfortably with adults. Now's the perfect time to help your child develop this ability by directly addressing all the traits grown-ups find endearing -- and irritating.

Giving the Full-On Hello

Meeting an adult can be intimidating for kids (we're bigger, after all, and we have the power to force them to eat broccoli). But you can remove a little of that weirdness. For instance, by now your child is old enough to introduce herself with a smile, make eye contact, and offer an audible greeting and even a handshake, says Dianne Marsch, director of The Etiquette School of Manhattan, which has classes for kids and adults. To help your child become more comfortable with these kinds of introductions, practice her greeting first with you and then with other familiar adults such as grandparents. If she feels shy about making eye contact, tell her to zone in on the adult's nose instead. No one will be the wiser. Also, explain that grown-ups might interpret waving hi and zooming off to play as rude -- even if kids don't mean it that way.

Talking to Authority Figures

No matter how much your child likes his teacher, he may still be hesitant to ask her a question or to clarify an assignment. "Kids this age can feel it's not their place to address an adult authority figure like a teacher or a coach, or they may just feel a bit shy about it," says Parents advisor Michele Borba, EdD, author of 12 Simple Secrets Real Moms Know: Getting Back to Basics and Raising Happy Kids. For example, if your son brings home a math paper riddled with mistakes because he was too afraid to ask the teacher to clarify the directions, don't immediately shoot off an e-mail explaining why Henry scored so poorly. Instead, encourage your child to talk with his teacher. Practice what he should say and remind him to follow some simple courtesy rules: Don't interrupt her when she's talking or busy, and always say thank you for helping.

Playing the Name Game

How your kids refer to adults (Mrs. Smith, Ms. Julie, or Julie) is often a matter of preference -- yours as well as the other person's. Some families wouldn't dream of letting the kids call the neighbors Susan and Bob; others think Mr. and Mrs. sound horribly old-fashioned. If you'd rather have your children not use first names regardless of the other adult's preference, teach your kid to respond with a charming "Thank you, but my parents prefer that I call you Ms. Wolfe."

Getting Superpolite

If your child wants to be the kid who's always invited back, she should try to go above and beyond the expected niceties like saying "please" and "thank you." For instance, when your child is staying at a friend's for dinner, remind her to offer to help set and clear the table. She can earn bonus points by putting away toys before leaving, as well as by saying thank you to the parents for having her over. These easily teachable behaviors will greatly enhance your child's likability with adults," says Dr. Borba.

Learning to Converse

To help your child become a better conversationalist, give him some tricks of the trade. For example, encourage him to think in threes. Teach your kid to answer questions by telling the grown-up three things about a subject. For an inquiry like, "Do you play soccer?" your child could say, "Yes. I play defense. My team's name is the Orange Crush. We're going to be in the playoffs." (But, you may want to add, don't answer in a robotic voice.) Another way to keep the chatter going is to have your kid use the word because -- he'll naturally be able to extend the conversation. A child answering the soccer question, for example, might say, "I love soccer because I get to run and kick the ball. It's fun to play because you get dirty." Finally, tell your child it's also a great idea to ask questions. Make sure he knows that grown-ups aren't the only ones allowed to be inquisitive. By turning the tables and asking "Did you play soccer when you were a kid?" your child is actively engaging in the conversation while showing an interest in the other person, a great social skill for anyone to have.

Originally published in the March 2009 issue of Parents magazine.