Friday, March 6, 2015

Why I want my kids to talk to strangers

Photo courtesy of Rachel Elaine/Flickr
The other day Brad took the girls to the pet store. While they were checking out various rodents, a woman came up behind them and began talking to the girls about what the rats.

"Don't talk to strangers," Lily whispered into her sister's ear. Neither acknowledged the woman.

Brad tells me this story and we giggle. I also roll my eyes.

Ever since we read "The Berenstain Bears Learn About Strangers" Lily is forever correcting me on my own devil-may-care attitude about people I don't know.

She doesn't like that I strike up conversations with people in checkout lines, parks and waiting rooms. She wonders why I say hi to people while out on walks or wave at the cars we pass in my neighborhood. 

"Who are you saying hi to, Mom?" she'll ask. 

"Just one of our neighbors," I respond.

"Who is it? What's their name?" she presses.

"I don't know." I admit.

"You shouldn't talk to strangers, Mom."

I sigh. She's fickle about rules. Like, she'll make allowances for hitting her sister ("But she said she wanted to play dollhouse with me and I just don't want her to play dollhouse with me!") or jumping on the couch ("I'm just dancing!") or splashing water out of the bathtub ("But Mom, Becky the turtle just needed to dive down really fast!"), but if she spots the smallest infraction on the stranger front, she's cuffing me faster than Lennie Briscoe can make a bad joke. 

"Looks like her mother never told her not to talk to strangers," he'd tell Det. Green while they stand over my body, which is lying in aisle nine of the grocery store. (In this episode, I've been canned to death with tomato soup by an angry 18 month old who'd finally cracked under the pressure of being told to, "say hi to the nice lady" one too many times).

Dun Dun!

Where were we?

Oh yes, Lily's fear of strangers. See, I want Lily to talk to strangers. 

I feel like I sound naive or idiotic or controversial for saying that. 

But I do.

I want her to say hi to people. To wave and be friendly. 

I tell her this. "Lily, it's OK to say hi to people when you're with me."

She's skeptical. 

Listen, I don't want to her to be chatting up strangers when I'm not around. I obviously, don't want her to take things from strangers or go anywhere with them. I know she's only 4. Maybe my expectations are too high. 

I tell her she doesn't have to have conversations with anyone, especially if she feels uncomfortable, but it's nice to say, "hello." I want to respect her feelings and intuition, while also fostering her sense of community. 

As I bemoan the state of the world -- all the hatred and misunderstanding -- I've come to realize one of the most important things I can do is to raise kind, empathetic children. This starts in our house as they battle over who gets sit in the pink chair. It starts in our neighborhood as we spend time getting to know our neighbors. And it starts in the grocery store, at the library and at the park when we see strangers and say, hello.

I know it's a small thing. Sometimes that's all a mom can tackle. OK most of the time.

So I celebrated yesterday when I read this column in the Washington Post. I'm not alone!

In it author Tracy Cutchlow starts by writing about recent stories of people calling 911 on parents who are allowing their older children a little independence. She suggests that rather than rushing to call CPS, we start having each other's back. Instead of saying "gotcha" to parents we think are falling short, we look out for their kids. This isn't about ignoring obvious signs of negligence or abuse.  It's about acknowledging that sometimes parenthood is chaotic and overwhelming and that there are a billion different perspectives on raising healthy, well-adjusted children.

Cutchlow offers suggestions for how we can reconstruct the village in which we raise our children.

That starts in our neighborhoods. Talking to other parents when we pick our kids up from school. Attending events in the community. Talking to the people we live near. Teaching our kids that if they're ever alone or scared, they can seek out another woman with children for help. And (my personal favorite) walking more so we can see our neighbors. 

I was reminded of how wonderful it is to have great neighbors this week. Winter Suckfest has put everyone in hibernation mode, but there's nothing like a good snowstorm to bring people out of their houses. 

Yesterday, our neighborhood gave the girls a couple of playmates. It gave me someone to enjoy a cup of coffee with. I exchanged recipes with my neighbor across the street, who also gave the girls a couple of stuffed animals she was trying to find new homes for. I shoveled the driveway, but another neighbor used a borrowed snowblower to clear where we'd been plowed in. 

We are lucky. But I attribute part of that luck to sitting on my front porch and saying "Hello."

We are not little islands in our houses. In our cars. At our desks. In lines or waiting rooms. 

We need each other. And it's better when we have each other's backs.

This is why I want my kids to talk to strangers. 

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