One thing people notice right away about me is that for someone who doesn't have kids of his own, I'm pretty damn good with kids. People often ask me, "Hey Mad City! How'd you get to be so good with kids?" And I'll usually just chuckle and swat at the air, like I don't know what they're talking about.
But for the longest time, I wasn't so good with kids. They would see me and either be indifferent, or go in another room and play with one of their electronic contraptions. But one day I discovered the secret of dealing with other people's kids: don't be yourself. Because children just find that boring and gauche. No, you need to pretend that you're someone or something that you're not, really. Here's a sampler of some of my most successful ruses:
1. Pretend you're a long-lost relative. Kids are often dumbfounded when you introduce yourself as Uncle Mad City, just returned home after 5 years exploring in the Antarctic. Then, when they've reached the maximum level of amazement and wonder, you yell out, "Ha, just kidding!" Then everyone has a good laugh, usually.
2. Pretend you're an animal. This tends to work better with younger kids, who are sometimes unsure of the difference between an adult human and other mammals. With my long neck and willingness to strip and chew low-hanging leaves from nearby trees, I've convinced more than a few kids that I'm a reticulated giraffe. But you need to be honest with yourself, and consider whether you can pull off giraffe, or if you'd be a more plausible baboon.
3. Pretend you're Richard Nixon. All you have to do is extend your arms upward, make V's with your fingers, tilt your head forward, let your jowls droop, and scowl. Voila! You're Richard Nixon, the late disgraced 37th president of the United States. Kids love it, even if they've never heard of Watergate or Spiro Agnew.
4. Pretend you're hungry. "Oliver, I see you've got some tasty pureed pears and sweet potatoes there. And I'm so hungry! Can't I have just a little bit? Num num num! No? No??? You want me to starve to death? Geez, Oliver!" Repeat several times for enhanced effect.
5. Pretend that you're very, very sad. Kids tend to be more empathetic than adults; and if you act as though you're extremely disconsolate, they'll usually want to know what's wrong. That's when you brighten and say," Well, I was feeling sad, but you just cheered me up!" Because who doesn't like to be the one to cheer somebody up?
6. Pretend there's no oxygen in the room. Even younger children who haven't received a basic scientific education yet know that fish can't survive out of water too long. Try gasping and rolling on the floor in mock agony, like a fish out of water, and screech, "No oxygen! No oxygen!" But if you pretend to be dead for more than 3-4 minutes, kids will usually get bored and look for something else to do.
7. Pretend that you're very angry. This is the one I usually use after a child refuses to share their food with me (see #4). For some reason, kids are totally amused by helpless rage. Just be careful not to make it too convincing.
If none of these work for you, don't give up. There are many other impersonations that have worked for me in the past: Dora the Explorer, bewilderment, ennui, Inspector Javert from "Les Miserables," a California roll. And if all else fails, there's nothing wrong with pulling out your wallet and giving the kid a couple bucks. Everyone likes money, even kids, and if a kid can witness all that without even cracking a smile ... well, maybe they've earned it.