Steph says it’s time to talk to strangers

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Sometimes, as a parent, you feel bad about who you are and what you do. And then, sometimes, your kids get older and actually tell you they appreciate who you are and what to do.

That is a nice thing.

Take, for example, the fact that I love talking to strangers. My kids will hem and haw and drag me down the street by the arm. They try to shield me from interactions, to force me to move along to where we are going, to get me not to stop to admire someone’s dress, or child or dog, to get me to stop eliciting strangers’ opinions about a topic we’re discussing. My guilt swells. How could I ignore them in favor of a stranger? But my behavior is hardwired.

This summer, something clicked with my older boy. Some sort of epiphany vis-à-vis my talking to strangers. I learned this as we were walking down Seventh Avenue in Park Slope.

“Hi!” I said, greeting someone or another, a one-time stranger, now a friend. “How are you?”

My greetings continued down the avenue — “Hey! How are you?”, “Hiya, good to see you!”— but instead of getting annoyed as usual, my son smiled.

“It’s funny. I’m like you now,” he said. “I talk to everyone. And it’s good.”

I’m paraphrasing, since my memory is useless, but the gist was that the thing my child had loathed about me was what he now loved about himself. And he was giving me credit.

Of course, as parents, we know it isn’t about getting credit, but…

Woo-hoo! Yippee! Yay!

Hot dang. My child actually saw the good in something I did. And, it was something important.

Talking to strangers. Conventional wisdom has parents telling their kids not to. I am not conventional. With my words and actions I scream the opposite:

Talk to strangers!

I learned it from my parents. The world is much more joyous, happy, understanding, trusting, and peaceful when we greet those around us with a smile, when we engage those we’ve never encountered as if they are valuable beings to be seen and heard.

“Say hello, ya never know…” is a saying I heard and adopted to quite interesting results.

For one thing, when we feel comfortable talking to people, we can get what we want. To wit, when said son ended up in the airport in Lima, Peru, with a close connecting flight on his trip to Cuzco.

“Tell someone with the airline you have a short connection,” I texted him. He did so, without a problem, and was ushered right through. Same has happened to him when he’s gone to sign up for things at school, or been comfortable enough to introduce himself to counselors or other administrators who can help him.

It seems obvious, but how often do kids (and adults) feel shy or embarrassed about asking for what they need, even from the people who are supposed to give it to them? If your typical approach has been not to talk to strangers, if you haven’t seen good models who chat strangers up easily and joyfully, how easy will it be to flip on that switch when you need to?

Talk to strangers early, and often, that’s my motto. I talk to little kids all the time, or at least try to. Some of them are closed up like tin cans, and I’ll note that their parents barely make eye contact, too. These are often folks in my own neighborhood, sometimes even in my own building. And yet they can’t engage. They won’t.

I’ve stopped chasing people down the street if they don’t return my “Hello.” I try not to complain about people’s lack of interest in chatting (with this slight exception), as it just brings me down. Suffice to say, I have to be the change, and I am happy my son has decided to be the change with me.

He has seen his chat abilities open doors for him. Interviews for jobs are easier, as is going into new social situations, or just buying a coffee or a piece of pizza. He has learned that friendliness pays dividends, and for that I am eternally grateful, for him and for me and for the world.

Talking to strangers makes the world a safer, more connected, and more joyful place.

That is the world I want my kids to live in and be part of.

Read Fearless Parenting every other Thursday on
Posted 12:00 am, August 16, 2018
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