I have to admit that I’m not terribly good at small talk. It isn’t that I’m naturally shy – avoiding speaking to people isn’t part of my genetic makeup. However, the ability to engage an acquaintance in light conversation while sticking to topics that can never be taken as offensive – the weather, for instance, or the state of the roads, or which junction is better for avoiding the roadworks on the M25 – is something that I can’t say comes naturally. Over the years I’ve learned to curb my natural tendency to blurt out a philosophical question two seconds into the conversation – “Lovely weather we’re having this morning. Do you believe that true democracy exists?” – but real small talk is something that’s never really been an automatic thing for me.
Talking to small children falls into the same category, and since I have one of my own, it should perhaps be a matter of concern that I’m not a ‘natural’ at that either. At various occasions in the mini-brioche’s life, I have been given helpful advice on how to talk to her – from the baby-talk that would encourage her to form words, to the open-ended questions that might encourage her to reveal more than a ‘dunno’ about her day at school. I was even recommended a book with ‘How To Talk To Your Child’ in the title, so it can’t be an isolated problem. Looking at all of this official information, it’s amazing that the mini-brioche can say a single word. I failed to double-barrel everything I said (‘is ba-ba hungry? Does ba-ba want din-dins? Yummy din-dins!’) or refer to her (and myself) in the third person. I failed to make affirming statements – “it makes me so happy when you remember to pick up your things” as opposed to “Aaargh! Who on earth left that Lego on the floor?”
At one point, I did try the techniques outlined in one article I’d been sent, and posed some of the open-ended questions that are supposed to encourage your school-aged child to open up a bit about playground politics, but it didn’t quite work in the way the article had suggested.
“So,” I began, “if you could sit next to anyone at lunch, who would it be?” This question is apparently designed to highlight any particular friendships that you might not be aware of.
She thought for a minute, and looked puzzled. “We sit next to whoever we like,” she shrugged.
“Oh.” I tried another. “If you could arrange it that anyone in your class could be abducted by aliens, who would it be?” Apparently this one helps to identify anyone that your child might not be getting on so well with.
“Jake,” she said promptly. I was surprised – Jake seemed like a nice lad, and I couldn’t imagine the mini-brioche not getting along with him. “Because he really likes aliens, so he’d like it best.” A nice answer, I felt, and left it at that.
One book in particular explained that parents must express empathy for a child whenever the child is kicking off, so that you encourage them to express their feelings and enhance their natural bond with you. A typical flashpoint with small children is the clash over hurrying up in the mornings – as all the books will tell you, small children don’t wear watches, and parents do. According to the ‘empathising parent’ book, the best approach is to say “I know. It must be so tough and upsetting for you to get your socks on, and you wish that you could just stay here pretending to be an astronaut – a barefoot one at that – rather than doing something really boring like putting your socks on. Wouldn’t it be lovely if socks didn’t exist, or if they flew to our feet with fairy wings so that we didn’t have to do anything about putting them on ourselves?” The effort of all this, combined with the sing-song voice I felt had to adopt to make it credible, resulted only in me feeling like screaming, and the mini-brioche asking me why on earth I was talking like that. Clearly, the book’s approach was not really helping us. Tough-love enthusiasts reckoned that a barked “SOCKS! NOW!” followed by the threat of some dire consequence, whether a clip around the ear or no TV for a week, would be sufficient, but I didn’t really see that working either.
I stuck to the straightforward approach. “Put your socks on, or we’ll be late.”
She looked cross. “When you say things like that, it really makes me sad. And angry.”
A flash of inspiration crossed my mind, and I mentally sent all the manuals flying out of the window. “That’s a shame,” I said briskly. “But you can waste your energy getting angry about small things like putting your socks on, when there are other ways to use your anger that get to the root of things.”
“Like what?” she said, as I handed her a sock.
I said the first thing that came into my head. “Have I ever told you about a man called Malcolm X?”
My summary of Malcolm X’s autobiography – judiciously leaving out the Harlem hustler phase – was met with open-mouthed fascination. How ridiculous that people might be judged on what they looked like! Do people still think like that? Why didn’t people agree with him? Why were people afraid of him? The discussion continued through a brisk application of socks, shoes and coat, out the door and down the road: by the time we got to the school gates I felt I’d planted some sort of seed. Malcolm X had been an angry person – angry at the rules that judged people on the colour of their skin rather than their actions or what they were really like inside, angry at a whole people losing everything they had and everything they were, and angry that people had been treated so badly for so long with nothing getting better. He had said some things when he was angry that he regretted later, but he had been open to learning from new experiences. And when we looked at what he had achieved, we could remind ourselves about how we can use our anger to change things that really need to be changed.
This wasn’t small talk – the parenting books would consider it inappropriate for a five year old. It didn’t tell me a thing about playground politics, and it won’t help her with the phonics or handwriting tests that will come sooner than I can blink. But it was real conversation about something that matters, and maybe it helped her think a bit more widely. It might spark an interest in history, or law, or social justice. She might remember it the next time she’s about to stamp her foot, or if she sees someone getting picked on in the playground. It might not come to fruition, but the seed is there. And she got her socks on without either of us yelling.
Perhaps an inability to make conversation in an ‘approved’ way isn’t quite so bad after all. If nothing else, I’m beginning to suspect that the lack-of-small-talk thing might be genetic. And next time there’s a stand-off over footwear, we might start talking about glasnost.