How to Behave with Children Who Belong to Other People

Send already prepared food (either frozen or with a long shelf-life) to the home. Do not send baby gifts unless you are specifically told that the parents lack something. I can just see you thinking black baby blankets look chic or that babies should have a puppy to play with or that babies need a subscription to Italian Vogue right away, to set them on the proper clothing track. Resist the urge, send food and either one fancy, useless gift, preferably silver or something practical, like a jumbo package of diapers.

Try to avoid seeing the child for at least a week. New children look rather like monkeys and it will be had to resist the temptation to make verbal comments on that fact. Or simply bursting into gales of laughter. This will hurt the new parent’s feeling. So wait if possible until the young person looks more like a person.

The first visit is very important, you must be amazed and appreciative if you want to continue your friendship with the soon-to-be-sleep impaired parents. Don’t lie but DO NOT say the first thing that comes to mind. Walk into the room prepared. “S/he is precious” is safe. All babies are precious. “What a sweet baby” also works. All babies are sweet. If the baby is screaming, say “How healthy s/he is!” Compliment one specific feature – eyes, hair, ears, nose, chin.

Don’t use normal adjective like “estimable,” “aesthetically pleasing,” “Picasso-esque,” or “baroque.” You have to use new-born specific adjectives such as “adorable,” “cute,” and “darling.” No irony allowed. If you need to, practice a few times before you actual meet the creature. Pretend you are looking at a new bottle of something Chanel or a particularly well-constructed crepe Suzette.

If at all possible, get a picture of you holding the baby. This you can then frame and, when you want to convince someone that you do, in fact, have a tender side, you will have the proof. A few pictures of you with children dispersed around the house will win you many brownie points with cute Democratic-type members of the gender you are trying to attract.

Once the first meeting is over, you should have smooth sailing. During all future meetings, be sure to mention the child first, no matter who it was you had over for the weekend or what you overheard at Le Cirque, no matter what new trend you just discovered. I know, I know, hard to imagine that a two-year-old, not even able to distinguish real from fake fur, is more important than the hottest new style in barrettes, but trust me, the kid comes first. If child is not actual present, ask after its general health and well-fare being. Pay attention and smile and listen well for at least ten minutes, then get down to business.

If the child is there, you must acknowledge its presence. Say “Hello” and if it is a smaller type specimen, do lean over and greet it on its level (sink gracefully on one knee so you are eye-to-eye, it’s good way to practice your curtsy) and if it talks, speak to it directly. A few questions should suffice. Never ask about school – what did you ever learn of any use in school? Ask after hobbies, friends, favorite colors, Disney characters and sweets.

NEVER give a child anything with caffeine or sugar. If the parent does, it is their little bundle of energy and they, not you, will be responsible for pulling the little angel off the ceiling. Do you want to turn well-behaved Gertrude, playing quietly with her spoon, into the Tasmanian devil?

For the next few years, give children’s books for birthdays and holidays. I know you are actively repressing your own young personhood, but if you can stand it, try to recollect a book you particularly enjoyed. Or walk into a store, dash into the children’s section, tell the smart-looking person who works there you need a really good baby book, then flip through D.V.’s autobiography and, just before you leave, dash back into the children’s section to buy what the clever clerk picked out. Be careful because children’s sections of bookstores often have actual children in them and you know what children plus alligator purse and suede pumps spell: dry cleaning bill.

Do not sign the book. Of course it would only add to the value of the book, but the deal is, if the child already has the book, then parents can re-wrap it and give it to some other child. Do not give gift certificates (except for spas), parents don’t have time to go to stores. Do not give anything that makes noise; the child will inevitably use it while you are trying to talk to their parent on the phone. Do not give something with small pieces; you will inevitably step on that little Lego in your Blahniks and sprain your ankle. Are casts this season’s accessory? I thought not.

After the child is about 6, ask the parents what s/he would like and then get it. After about fourteen years old, if you do not receive hand-written thank you notes, stop giving presents even if it is a niece, nephew or god-child.

You need to be extra special careful and kind during the rotten years – middle school through the end of high school. Never ask about future plans. Don’t ask about college choices. Give them two compliments and then discuss the weather. They will be grateful. If they have some fancy ideas about being anti-drug or anti-smoking or into cheerleading or spelunking, you are obliged, in respect for their age and tender feelings, to listen to their diatribes for ten minutes before gracefully excusing yourself. And the words “You idiot” may not pass your lips. We were all young once.

After 19 or so (one year of college or one year of working after high school) and they need to be treated like normal people. And you can be on easy terms and learn to cherish and love them. Until they decide to have children, and then it’s back to the top of the essay. Quickly.

Now there is one rule to learn and two specific delicate situations which must be addressed: brat-child and babysitting. The golden rule is never interfere with parenting unless the child’s safety is in danger. If Agatha is dashing across a busy parking lot, you are allowed to scream. Any less life-threatening behavior is strictly under the control of the elders. If Xavier is menacing you and your white linen bias-cut shift with jam-smeared fingers, you can tell him delicately to “not touch” and/ or you can get up and try to escape the fiend, but you may not yell, scold, admonish or swat. Not allowed.

As for the brat-child, there are openings for, shall we say, behavior modification if you have a greedy child in your social set. This is the specimen which greets you with “What did you bring me?” or “Where’s my present”? A little of this is charming, especially if the small human is under six years old. Such repeated questions from older children is obnoxious. And if not stopped by the parents, could lead to severe social ostracism later in life. What you must do is find non-noisy, inexpensive, and totally unchild-approved gifts.

Little Olaf runs at you screaming “Where’s my toy?” and you must smile your most widest smile and say “Oh how lovely to see you. Yes, of course I brought you a present. A lovely present.” Olaf goes into hysterics and you lovingly hand him a large, beautifully wrapped present. He tears at the paper and discovers a large typographical map of New Zealand. He stares in silence. “Isn’t it lovely,” you croon, “I just saw that and thought of you.” He stares in disbelief. You smile. He walks out of the room. Don’t get a map of the area where the child lives, no, no, that might actually spark an interest and thus not teach anything. If the performance is repeated the next time you visit, be ready with a large jar of garlic-stuffed olives or stewed pears, a nice package of dark-blue cotton socks or two classical music tapes.

If the child ever says “You always give the most rotten stuff,” nod sadly. Then the next time you visit, come empty-handed and be sure to say that you were just about to buy him/ her their own TV/test pilot simulator/ X-box but then remembered that you never seemed to buy the right things for the child, so you didn’t.

Babysitting is another special area of consideration. First of all, if you don’t have children, don’t want to have children, and don’t enjoy conversations about bodily functions and who exactly owns the Buzz Lightyear doll, not to mention who broke the Buzz Lightyear doll, you are babysitting-impaired and should not be considered for the job. Accept babysitting responsibility only if parents are in desperate need. Need, of course, can mean they are in dire need of a meal without flying food or that they have to go get delivered of another child.

Some rules: if there is a child involved under three years old, do not bring anything else to do. They will occupy your entire attention. Yes, your friend can watch three children, cook dinner and talk on the phone. You can’t. You can’t order pizza and watch a two-year old. You settle down to read a movie review and before you are half through, the child will have stripped half the wallpaper from the bathroom. You’ll need to concentrate. Three-ish to about 14 or so, and they can basically amuse themselves, but you should always be in earshot and preferably in their sight. Teenagers will try to get away with murder, mayhem, and violations of about 26 penal codes. Keep them under strict supervision.

Second rule is that kids cry a lot. You forget this if you aren’t around children, but normal pre-schoolers are usually in tears between three and 92 times a day. Poor dears don’t have developed coping mechanisms like chocolate, champagne, online shopping and vacations in Maui. Parents can always tells the difference from a child crying in distress and a normal Menaleus-took-my-truck crying jag. You can’t tell the difference, so if you hear wailing, investigate. Every time. On the other hand, do not let some tears stop you from feeding them Brussel-sprouts, getting the gum out of their hair, making them brush their teeth, and putting them to bed.

Third rule is never feed anyone under 16 caffeine or sugar. Just say “no.” Remember you aren’t raising the kid; if the parents want to give little Petunia coffee-flavored sugar cripsies with chocolate milk for breakfast, good for them. You’re there for a few hours. You’re delicate. And you don’t have the leg muscles to catch up with a four-year old on a sugar high. Come repaired with caffeine-free, sugar-free treats in case they are especially well-behaved and would like a reward.

Another general rule is that it is infinitely easier to babysit kids who can’t tell time than those who can’t. If you are wilting, feel free to change or hide the clocks. Remember this is only for one night. Going to bed at seven never hurt anyone.

Next rule: children don’t lie but they will occasionally stretch the truth or misremember. Treat them like politicians from the political party you don’t agree with, respectful disbelief. “Mom always let’s us…” should be treated like those “I support real campaign reform” statements. Again, the parents may, in some small fit of insanity, let the little buggers watch R-rated movies, but you stick to Disney unless everyone in the room is over 18. No exceptions.

Most importantly: trust everything the parents say. Every last word. If they report that every night at 7:26 shy, modest Ester will turn green and run around the house shrieking the lyrics to the Bolivian national anthem, get out your Bolivian flag at 7:25 and don’t ask questions. If you’ll need to change diapers, watch at least one live demonstration and get the details in writing.

Lastly, if people say baby-sitting is fun, do not believe them. It is nerve-wracking, you are being entrusted with your friend’s/ sibling’s most treasured possessions. You will, like it or not, spend the whole time worrying about them, fussing over them, trying to make sure they are comfortable and happy – your own needs will always take a back seat. When one demands a good-night kiss, falls asleep in your arms or states that you aren’t quite as dorky as the regular babysitter, you will feel amazed and blessed. This is why people have children and when you go home to your little flat, it will seem a bit too clean and too quiet, but don’t get caught up in the moment. Having a child is a rest-of-your-life responsibility. I’d say get a chia pet and offer to babysit again, in a few months.