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With Regina Barreca

With Adults, Tots


I recently was asked to give a lecture concerning various styles of communication, with a focus on one of the following topics: "communicating with young children" or "communicating with colleagues."

Since I see both of these activities as requiring the same skill level or -- to put it more frankly -- to be exactly the same thing, I figured I could address both.

Here's a one-line summary of my talk: The only real difference between communicating with the two groups is that it is far more fun trying to communicate with small children.

When little children make faces, for example, they make them deliberately and consciously -- unlike one's colleagues. You know for a fact that when kids roll their eyes or squish their faces into bizarre expressions that they are attempting to invoke a certain reaction. You'll laugh. Even if you are not amused, you will at least have stopped talking, however briefly. Their goal is achieved. Everybody is happy, even if that happiness is fleeting (and what happiness isn't fleeting, after all?)

This is not the case when one attempts to read the expressions of one's colleagues. Speaking to a coworker who, in the middle of a conversation, tries to suppress a huge yawn by widening his eyes and pulling down his chin, does count as a form of dialogue, I suppose. What his gesture communicates, however, is something along the lines of "I've been up since 6 a.m. and the last thing I need to do is listen to your theory concerning the connection between finger-painting, spirituality, and the limbic brain." You, in contrast, will probably neither laugh nor stop talking, because your role is to ignore the signal. It would be impolite to shout "Just yawn for Pete's sake, will ya?" Nobody's goal is achieved.

When small children wiggle their ears, it's cute. When a colleague suddenly starts twitching her nose like an extra from Bewitched, it's just plain scary.

For the most part, I genuinely love my colleagues. It's just that quite often it would be easier and more satisfying to talk to an inanimate object, such as a cigar box or stapler. Goodness knows that we try -- really, genuinely try -- to understand each other. It's just not easy.

Take, for example, the whole idea of "mentoring," which is a big issue. Like everybody else, I want to think of myself as supportive and encouraging of the next generation. Yet if I offer to "be there for somebody," I do expect it to be on my own terms. Occasionally this has caused strife because my idea of support was not quite what a younger colleague expected. And part of the problem lies with the very terms that we use because a phrase such as "being there for someone" is necessarily vague and can be disastrously confusing.

We should adopt a different model. We should take it back to where it started.

Let's face it: at least with a child under 4, "being there for somebody" means actually sitting down on a rug with your hands in the Play-Doh and glue in your hair. Little ones actually just want you to be there; object permanence is what's important. It would have been more fun and more useful for me to sit on my co-worker's rug and play with Barbies than it was for me to offer vague platitudes. Eye contact, a pat on the back, a hug, the smile of delight, and the shared laugh-out-loud of sheer pleasure are the best and most direct signals of communication, after all.

Having said all this, I think it takes a different kind of patience to work with the youngest group. A person must have a different kind of gift to communicate with small children (as opposed to those of us who work primarily with their grown-up imitators). That is a gift I do not have. I'm not cut out to work with young children, especially not the under-3 crowd, not even as an amateur. I can't even play peek-a-boo for more than ten minutes at a time because I would just want to tell the kid, "Sweetheart, trust me: every time you open your eyes, it's always going to be me."

You've got to have a way with people of all ages if you're going to work with young children; the ability to make a newer member of the human race feel at home is done by those who have been given a special place in the world.

If we're fortunate, we are certain that our colleagues share our enthusiasm. And even if we need to work on communicating this fact in words or, dare I say, facial expressions, it's worth the effort to try.

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