How do you talk to non-parents?

If you think one of these roads is better, go read David Orr’s concise and excellent  The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong . | Photo by  Jens Lelie  for  Unsplash

If you think one of these roads is better, go read David Orr’s concise and excellent The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong. | Photo by Jens Lelie for Unsplash

Don’t comment on what the parent’s kids should or should not be eating. Don’t refer to parental leave as a “break.” Don’t compare their child to your pet. Never, under any circumstances, claim that you are tired.

The internet is brimming with advice like this for non-parents who dare speak to parents. The first problem with these lists is that they tend to be published on websites like Scary Mommy and Parents, which are generally unpopular among non-parents.

But even if non-parents discovered and read these articles, they’d encounter a second problem: the portrayal of the non-parent as a selfish, neurotic, or clueless amateur.

Let’s assume that you harbor only good will toward friends, family, coworkers, and strangers without kids, but that you sometimes find yourself frustrated during conversation across your recently widened experience gap. Here’s some snarkless advice to help.

Step 1: Stop thinking of them as non-parents

Non-parent is a definition based on absence. We don’t call crayons nonyellow or nonorange. We don’t call nurses non-doctors, or steak dinners non-pasta. Before a person becomes a parent, she does not call her parents not-grandparents.

Labeling a person based on a characteristic they don’t have can be a badge of honor (non-drinker, drug-free, gluten-free), but it can also be a negative (charmless, unfiltered, gluten-free). “Non” doesn’t always carry a negative connotation, but in the case of non-parent, the prefix assumes deficiency, whether psychological (when the non-parent doesn’t want kids) or biological (when the non-parent cannot create a child).

Non-parent is an especially poor term because it creates an “us” and “them,” which helps create the kind of hostile environment that breeds articles about how each group is wronging the other.

Unfortunately, the English language doesn’t have great alternatives for non-parent. There’s childless and childfree, but the terms are problematic, because both imply value judgments about having children. There’s voluntarily childless and involuntarily childless, which distinguish between people who choose not to have children and those who want but are unable to have children, but both terms are centered around lack.

I’ll advocate for the slightly clunky but more person-forward adults with kids and adults without kids.

Still think it would be better to use the term non-parent? Try swapping in a race, ethnicity, or gender for “parent” and see how it sounds. Using “not” in a phrase denoting a minority group isn’t a great look.

Step 2: Stop trying to win at sleep-deprivation

Yes, you probably bristle when people without kids talk about how tired they are, especially if you’re the parent of a three-month old.

But here's the thing: fatigue is also subjective. A friend on a work deadline may very well feel the most tired she's ever felt before. Your lived experience has prepared you for a different level of tired, but even if you’re objectively more sleep deprived than your friends, you’re not subjectively more sleep-deprived. That is, your friend may feel every bit as sleep-deprived as you do. 

Everybody’s tired. Some people might even be more tired than you. A person who tells you she’s tired shouldn't make you launch into an inner monologue--or worse, an outer one--about how she doesn't know tired. It should be a recognition that this person is trying to share something with you. Instead of competing, ask questions and empathize.

Step 3: Acknowledge your ignorance

As people increasingly delay parenthood, we're in the rare position of knowing both what it's like to be parents and what it was like to be adults without kids. We had professional lives before children. We've experienced the stress of wondering whether our life plans were the "right" ones. We've dealt with twelve hour “half” days and low pay at the bottom rung of a corporate ladder. For some, those experiences were part of the decision to have children; for others, a consequence of childbirth that we either chose or resigned ourselves to. 

It’s true that adults who waited later in life to have children have some sense of what it’s like to be an adult without children. It’s also true that we have an incomplete understanding of life without kids.

If you view your own entrance into parenthood as a step or a natural progression from the workplace, then you don't really understand, at least not fully, people who do not view a workplace-to-parenthood hierarchy. You shouldn’t assume that, because you have experienced life both with kids and without kids, that you know what your friends and family without kids lives are like.

Step 4: Be open to advice

Adults with kids love to complain adults without kids but with tons of advice. “You don't know because you're not a parent” is often hissed at person who dare ask "Have you tried holding the baby this way?" It's a shorthand dismissal of another person's else's thoughts, lived experience, or suggestions, a rejection of creative problem-solving and empathy.

But parents get just as angry with more experienced parents (read: grandparents) for dispensing advice all the time too, so perhaps the real problem is that parents tend to see advice as criticism.

We should all have a stake in how the next generation is raised. We don't imagine that teachers cannot be educators unless they are parents any more than we expect pediatricians to be parents. In short, we imagine that people can be experts in children without having children of their own.

Someone is trying to help you. Maybe you don’t want help, and that’s okay! But you should just say that instead of labeling all people without kids as incompetent or inconsiderate.

Step 5: Just be a regular human

It’s really easy to talk with people without kids, because it’s really easy to talk to humans.

Ask them about their day. Tell them about your day. Talk about what you’re reading. Talk about your workouts. Talk about your vacations. Talk about television shows. Later, you can talk about hopes and dreams and fears and insecurities. If you really need to, buy a deck of conversation starters to remind you how to talk about things other than kids.