I’m going to step out of my comfort zone today and dispense some very direct, very practical advice: Next time you meet a unicorn, ask for a wish.

It was last Saturday morning, and I was at the farmers’ market, which has thinned considerably at this point in the season. There were gaps between stalls, and the flowers all looked the worse for wear, tatter-petaled. The farmers and their helpers blew on their hands while visitors such as myself eyed their squashes and greens.

Into this autumnal scene came a unicorn on a bicycle. Really! Okay, outwardly she might have been a preschooler with a novelty helmet, but I looked past the (to me, hideous) molded plastic, to her own magical nature, and addressed her with astonishment and wonder.

“Are you the mythical lost unicorn I’ve been hearing about?!” I asked. She looked at me with what I would describe as uncertain pride, and after hesitating, she nodded.

“Oh!” I said. “Then will you please, please grant me my wish?” I pressed my hands together like a steeple in supplication. A moment more of confusion,with something like pleasure crisscrossing her expression, then she waved her hand at me and said, “Wish!” (It looks like a command, but it felt like a bestowal.)

So I closed my eyes, and I did.

There is a telegraphy that flashes back and forth between parents and myself, as we meet somewhere and I note the unicorn (or fairy or caped crusader) accompanying them. I speak to children or not depending on my sense of their parents’ comfort, which is frequently important to ensure a child’s own comfort anyway.

Other important elements of my methodology: I don’t talk too loudly; I don’t stand too close or even lean into their personal space. (What “too” means to any given person is a felt matter, of course, but my instincts are usually pretty good in that regard.) I don’t linger. And of crucial importance? Tone.

Humor and playfulness can be empowering; they can just as easily feel exclusive, or worse. Children are exquisitely sensitive to the ways the world deals with them, so I try to speak to them in a manner that says, “I’m making this up for fun and you’re in on the fun! But also, by the way, magic is real—and you can be in on that, too.”


spotted wren-babbler (Elachura formosa)


And speaking of magic, this photograph made my day. (Click here for attribution.)



  1. Oh how I wish I could do as you described. Once upon a time I could, but regretfully today, an adult male stranger approaching a young child (especially female) in that manner is eyed with too much suspicion, even if a parent is nearby.


    • I can well imagine it’s frustrating to know one is a good and decent man, but to feel nonetheless restricted, even suspect, in one’s self-expression, based on gender. I should make very clear, though, that I also would be unlikely to “approach” a child, in the sense of crossing space to force an encounter. A brief exchange when paths, of their own accord, cross – that seems far less intrusive to me. And some circumstances lend themselves even more to such interactions, like if you’re the clerk in a shop frequented by families. A salesclerk in a shop in my little downtown is likely to meet girls dressed as fairies, out for the annual Fairy Garden Tour. Even there, however, my methodology would be to demonstrably maintain my own personal space, as a sign of respect for theirs. I do that with any child I don’t know, under any circumstances, so that the child feels she or he has the choice to elect the acquaintance. Any feeling of “force,” even social force, is out of place with a child one doesn’t know. Showing faithful respect for children’s boundaries and rights – in my opinion and experience – is a way not just to earn their trust, but to empower their freedom of choice in relating and develop their self-understanding and instinct for personal comfort and safety first, connection and attention second. I hope that makes sense!

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