The Rules Part of Dealing with Kids
Most adults I've seen who don't know how to deal with kids seem to be more confused about rules than anything else. This, then, is my recipe for success with small children with a big hairy unfair emphasis on rules. I will rework this wu soon; your /msg will be considered.
I'm 18, and have spent all my life either as a child or a babysitter. I've dealt with more children ages four to ten than anyone I know besides professionals. I've talked to a lot of parents and teachers, read a lot of books on education and child development (I recommend Jean Piaget and John Holt especially), and shushed a lot of brats. I homeschooled (unschooled, specifically), and helped my younger brother and sister do the same. I've also been completely unable to handle a lot of children, so get a nice big salt-shaker. Supposing I was giving you a pep-talk as you left to spend a day with a person of perhaps a fifth your age:
Respect the child. Condescension will be silently noted and held against you. Do not call her/him youngster, sport, junior, princess, kiddo, or anything besides what you're asked to, at least at first. Don't talk about her/him as though (s)he's not there while (s)he's in the room. Do not patronize her/him to her/his parents. Remember that this person is, year for year, easily thrice as intelligent as you. Your only real advantage is that the (s)he is inclined to trust you. Like foreigners, kids aren't dumb, they're just not used to the way things work. Take people seriously; it's worth it.
Don't bother introducing yourself or explicitly discovering each others' interests. Just start doing something, and stay focused on whatever conversation springs up. If Rosie wants only to talk about her dolls for three hours, listen and comment. Understand that these dolls are as important to her as your favorite activity is to you, and that, unchecked, you too would go on for three hours. For this patience you will have a permanent friend.
Eventually you'll end up doing something together. Don't try to impose your will on collaborative projects; probably the most productive thing you can do is supply ideas and not object when they're turned down. If little Ringo has some specific role in mind for you, presumably something his family is sick of doing, go ahead and do it until you get sick of it as well, then suggest something else. You've been alive for a very long time, and shouldn't have trouble in the weird aunt/uncle niche, where all you have to do is keep up a stream of interesting things to fold sheets of paper into or odd facts about household plants. Try telling a story: just launch into an ad-lib with any sorts of characters, making sure only that no one dies and there's plenty of funny dialog. Don't be afraid of "sophisticated" references, but explain them. Follow any suggestions. End the story abrubtly when it's no longer of interest. Stay in this groove. Listen to the child talk, do favors when asked, and don't be a pretentious, aloof fogey. If Griselda looks bored, start talking about anything, and don't shut up until asked to. Explain stuff. "See that big building? I have no idea why they think it looks good with black glass like that. It's probably hard to see out the windows. In Chicago once there was a building that swayed so much in the wind that some of its widows broke. There's a kind of architecture -- architecture means building houses and skyscrapers and other buildings -- a kind of architecture called modernism, and the peple who do it say...." and so on. If you're not good at stream-of-consciousness talking, get out a pencil and paper and doodle or write limericks until she asks you what you're doing. If nothing else, you'll hear what she'd rather do. Sitting in opposite corners of the room doing separate things is acceptable too, of course.
Eventually you'll start doing something vaguely risky to body, property, or patience, and you'll want to set some rules. Use your authority carefully. Kids, especially boys, tend to be curious about power -- parents, dinosaurs, kings and queens, soldiers. They're not born knowing what your idea of "out of line" is, so sooner or later you're going to have to explain. Say what's okay and what isn't, and no fooling afterwards unless you explicitly say you're changing the rules and why. In my experience, spoiled brats aren't produced by pampering so much as by alternate pampering and high expectations. Kids need consistency and reason from their authority.
Make your rules few, specific, and absolutely clear. From these few, the child will get an idea of what overall good behavior is. "Be good, act polite, and don't cause trouble" is impossible to follow, whereas "don't go past the fence" and "chew with your mouth closed" are quickly grasped. Better still are "you shouldn't get burrs in your clothing, so don't go past the fence" and "I'll keep my mouth shut while I chew if you do too", because they have some sort of context. "I don't want you to go past the fence" might sound more polite to adults, but kids are likely hear "my word is your command and I don't have to explain myself". If you're brave and kind, say "if you go past the fence, we'll have to get burrs out of your clothing -- are you willing to?" and accept the answer.
Your role is not to dole out rights and privileges but to explain why acting in certain ways will work better. As such, you should think through your rules carefully: do they make any sense? Are there loopholes? Don't prohibit a kid from doing something just because you heard some other adult laying it out to some other kid. If it's a rule of convention rather than safely, for instance table manners, try arranging to temporarily violate it together: "let's both chew with our mouths open for three minutes, then not any more" has worked every time I've tried it.
Be fair, and back up what you say. Teaching people to obey authority unquestioningly is a bad idea. If you tell a child to do something and (s)he asks "why?", give the real answer. If (s)he asks again, explain the previous answer. Don't think you can get away with circular definitions; in the end they just make you seem stupid and ignorable. Playing the "why" game can be quite fun if you're into philosophy, semantics, or artificial intelligence.
Periodically, any kid will bend or break rules just to see what happens. Stick to what you said. If you told Todd not to go past the fence and he climbs atop the fence just to grin wickedly at you from up high, don't punish him. Accept that he's within the letter of the law: smile and wave, though it might be appropriate to cock one eyebrow in warning. If he jumps the fence, call "you'll get burrs", not "remember what I said". If he doesn't answer, wait till he comes back, point out the burrs all over him, and offer to get them off his shirt if he gets them off his pants. Don't bother yelling; he knows he broke the rule, and now he knows why it was there. Feel free to act in that sad I'm-more-disappointed-than-angry way, but saying "I told you so" isn't going to help. In more extreme cases, give chase and deliver a chewing-out, but a good system of rules is about reality, not your authority -- breaking it is unpleasant anyway. Sometimes you will have to prohibit or demand something from Todd that has no inherent punishment for disobedience, but he'll be happier with this if he has the sense that the things you tell him to do are rational.
In other words, be honest. If you tell a kid not to do something because it saves work for you, say so.
Don't bribe if you can possily help it. It will end in tears. Once you give Samantha an external reward for doing what you say, you're her shopkeeper. Soon she'll be continuously concentrated on getting whatever treat, not directly on doing what you say, and sugar will be the only way to get her to do anything. First, this is immoral, and second, what are you going to do when you run out of treats? Better is to occasionally treat her to something good for the heck of it, but not establish a one to one correspondence of sucking up to to you to getting goodies. Imagine if your boss handed your co-workers a $20 bill for every good deed. By all means, have fun things to do together, but don't make them currency. If you need to bribe (and eventually you will), don't use sugar: it makes kids hyper for half an hour, then moody and irritable. (Punishment doesn't work for similar reasons, plus spanking a child for hitting is like screaming "I take out my anger in inappropriate ways". Punish by limiting rather than hurting: "no more squirt-gun fighting today" rather than a slap on the wrist.)
The kid should understand that you get to have a good time if you act responsibly not because someone lets you but because that's the way the Universe is. The only way to learn responsibility is through being responsible for things, not through reward and punishment by an overlord. Similarly, as the scout leader says, give children authority and they will come to respect it. These are the axioms of modern society (a.k.a., in certain circles, Good Old-fashioned Home-Style Family Values), and you should feel lucky to be passing them on. Act like you want other people to act, defer pleasure, and save the best piece for last. Kids aren't predisposed against these ideas, but you'll have to demonstrate them consistantly.
What to avoid: At the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle several years ago, I saw a girl of about five watching a baby gorilla playing with some straw. After a minute the baby gorilla looked up at her, and they met eyes for a minute. They were completely absorbed in each other. Then a nearby human female barked "Debbie! Come over and see the pappa gorilla eating! Debbie, I said get over here!" without even looking around. Debbie trotted over to see the pappa, and the baby went off to climb some rocks.
C-Dawg says: I really hate being around children, but a rule I've always said I'd follow, were I a parent is "Don't pretend to know the answer if you don't". I'm pretty sure you would agree with this. It really irks me seeing adults do that (and, who knows, "injuring" the kid later).
C-Dawg++! Me, I'm not against lies to children, but I'm against unnecessary lies.