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Apologies for the very vague question. I'm unsure of how I'm supposed to address and talk to children - I imagine it varies a little depending on the social situation, and in general I should avoid potentially awkward language as much as I should around adults, but does anyone have any broad guidelines? A few particular things I might fret about:

  • Should I address a child I don't know with 君【きみ】? If I know their name, is [surname]+君【くん】 / +ちゃん usual?
  • Presumably I should generally use plain verb forms rather than polite verb forms. Does this change if I'm talking about their family members or similar (or indeed ever)? Is it usual to give commands with ください, ~なさい, くれ or just plain ~て form? (I'm unsure of whether なさい is too blunt - my intuition about this word is that it's one used when the speaker is in the same social hierarchy as the listener, but higher up. This probably applies if I am a teacher or a parent, but not if I meet them in the street.)
  • Do I refer to their family members as お父【とう】さん, etc.?
  • If I give them something, do I あげる it to them or やる? (The latter feels rather blunt to me.) If I talk about someone else giving them something, do they あげる, やる, くれる or くださる it? (I would guess くれる sometimes occurred in the case of very young children - though this doesn't feel like a linguistic issue! - but otherwise あげる or やる according to what the 'giver' would describe it as?)
  • At what point does a child become an adult (in the sense of addressing them with さん and/or using polite verb forms)?
  • (A final, less general question. I tend to use 僕【ぼく】 to refer to myself, but have heard of adults referring to young boys like this. Would this be confusing? How should I refer to myself?)

(The context is that I (male, mid-20s) encountered a young (8-ish?) Japanese boy yesterday - actually, he spent 45 minutes thrashing me all over a goban - and would have liked to exchange a few words of congratulation, but as his father was present I was a little nervous. I wasn't sure whether using forms like ~なさい and やる would have implied I thought very highly of my own social status, but I also wasn't sure whether using forms like ~ください and あげる was a little heavy towards a young boy, who may never have been spoken to directly like that. Still, I'd be very interested to see the question answered from a general perspective.)

Thanks!

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Current answer seems to be attracting about as many upvotes as downvotes, so I'm reluctant to accept it - can anyone else clarify, please? –  Billy Oct 30 '12 at 0:02
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2 Answers

This may be as much pedagogy as Japanese, but here we go, trying to answer your points in turn.

  • 君・ちゃん is the best allrounder choice. Surname is not essential, even when you are on surname basis (as is very likely) with the parents, who you will address with さん. I personally only like to use [君]{きみ} with children I know pretty well already. You could either ask the parents or the child for their (first) name, remember it and use it with 君・ちゃん. If that is not an option, I would revert to あなた first.
  • You can use plain form +(の)です to be both understood by the child and avoid being impolite, as appropriate. I see no harm in being a good example by using proper, polite Japanese (です・ます forms) with children you hardly know, especially when you are talking about their parents. Commands I would phrase as ~てくれる? (with rising intonation), because you are in no good position to give commands (especially when the parents are around); ~て might be appropriate as well, but ~なさい is best reserved for parents.
  • When trying to be polite, parents should definitely be お父さん et al. If the child calls his dad パパ, using the same word like a name might work as well, though.
  • When talking to the child, everyone gives with あげる and everyone gets with くれる. Again, やる is best reserved for parents.
  • I would start addressing girls with さん as early as third grade (9 years), but this really depends on how well you know them. 君 can be used much longer; maybe さん for sixth grade (12 years old) boys would sound natural to me.
  • When talking to the children, I would use 僕. Too many foreigners use 私 when they should use 僕, and the children know it and they won't forgive you.
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Thanks for the answer! But my curiosity compels me: what do you mean by "the children know it and they won't forgive you"?! –  Billy Oct 22 '12 at 22:40
    
Japanese kids will notoriously latch onto any little discrepancy in their expectations that they possibly can and will bring it up. Often. –  ssb Oct 23 '12 at 0:14
    
Well, of course they will forgive you. But, just like ssb said, they will find it strange, they will bring it up, and they will bring it up again. For children, liking an adult often means identifying with him/her to some extent, and that is much more difficult when this person does not only sound a little strange, but also seems to be obviously mistaken about what to call himself... I was lectured on a few occasions "私 is for girls, boys use 僕" (by both girls and boys), until I gave in. –  Earthliŋ Oct 23 '12 at 7:21
    
Any suggestions/criticism from the downvoters? –  Earthliŋ Oct 23 '12 at 7:23
    
I think the usage of ちゃん、君、さん in the above is about right so I'll give it an upvote. –  paullb Oct 25 '12 at 9:48
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I'm only writing this as an answer because I don't have enough reputation points to write comments.

I'm not a native Japanese speaker but I've been living in Japan for 9 years. There's no 100% objective answer to your questions. That said, I agree with pretty much all of @user1205935's answer.

The only item I'd expand is the one about さん/ちゃん/くん. There's no cuttoff point for the usage of ちゃん and くん based on age alone. It really depends on relative age, status, context and familiarity. Examples:

  • I was a grad student in Japan, and my advisor (and other professors in the same lab) would address male students with -くん, not -さん.
  • If I were to address a friend's 10-year-old daughter, I'd probably use -ちゃん, as -さん sounds way too formal. On the other hand, if I've just met a boy or girl of that age at the go parlor, I'd use -さん.
  • Young adult women will often address their close female friends of the same age or younger using -ちゃん.

The part about using ~てくれる instead of ~なさい is on the spot (assuming you're not a teacher), but note you can also use ください, and can soften it as くださいね if you want.

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Thanks for expanding on the use of さん・君・ちゃん. I based my age cutoffs on the situation, where you don't know the child you want to address at all (and you don't know the parents that well either), which is what I understood from the question. There are no clear lines, however. In my yoga class here in Tokyo, all women are addressed with ちゃん, women well into their 40s or 50s; most men, too, are addressed with 君. The prime minister's children, say, would almost always be さん (or 様), no matter what age, I presume. –  Earthliŋ Oct 31 '12 at 15:10
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