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Your Kids Should Talk to Strangers

Shy little girl in pinkMy uncle and aunt owned two Malamutes which looked more like wolves than dogs.  I remember walking them down a path and I noticed something surprising, kids under the age of 5-6 didn’t seem to be afraid of the dogs, but older kids and adults stayed clear.  The little kids would run toward the two “wolves” while their parents chased them in terror.  The little kids would pull the dogs’ ears and give them hugs, but the adults were leery.  It seemed like fear of big dogs was something that had to be learned rather than something natural.

Kids by nature seem to be pretty trusting.  They don’t have good boundaries with big dogs, or even adults.  Since kids don’t seem to have natural boundaries, we as parents help them by teaching and disciplining them.  I was at a park when my girls were about 3 years old.  Another little girl was at the park with her grandpa and we were having fun watching the kids tear around the play structure.  Our girls needed a snack and came to mom and me to rest and eat.  The little girl tagged along and asked for a snack.  We asked grandpa if it would be okay and he said yes.  We sat on the curb and ate our snack.  My girls got tired of the curb and decided to sit on my lap and climb on my shoulders.  This little girl tried to join them.  I had to tell her, “I’m sorry, I know it would be fun to climb on me like my girls are doing, but that is something that only my family does.”  Then I told all three girls, “Why don’t you go run and play on the playground, so all of you can have fun.”

As a parent, we have to focus on helping our kids establish healthy boundaries.  We may use words like, “Stranger Danger”, or other ways to teach them; but the goal is the same, to get them to be less vulnerable.  Here is the catch, protecting them from strangers may actually make them less safe, and limit opportunities for work and friendship in life.

Our goal as parents is to raise great adults, not simply great kids (Read post, “Good kids or Great Adults?”).  Great adults have good boundaries with strangers, yet also can talk to strangers.  In order to be productive, make friends and participate in society, get work, and a whole bunch of other adult things, we need to not be afraid of strangers.

So how do you teach your kids to talk to strangers without throwing them to the wolves?

  • Learn by doing it with you, and you need to include them.  Look for opportunities to learn, like in the lobby at church, school events, play park, and other social places where you both happen to be.
  • Teach them how to shake hands and greet people.  Just because they are kids doesn’t mean they should have a pathetic handshake.  It may seem really awkward for your kid, but coach them to participate in the handshake and look the person in the eye.
  • Teach them how to respond to a question.  We all can feel shy and intimidated, but that doesn’t give us license to blow people off.  Too many parents swoop in and answer for their kid when an adult asks a question.  I find myself either answering for or badgering my kids to answer.  You can build your kid’s confidence by practicing common questions.
  • Don’t have them show off.  Now I’m getting personal, because as a proud dad there aren’t too many things I like more than to have people blown away by how awesome my girls are.  So there are times in which I ask them a question which clearly is set up to show off their amazing abilities.  Showing off is never good, and it really places your child in either a place of anxiety or it sets them up for a lifetime of believing the purpose of a conversation is to impress someone, rather than connect.
  • Make it a game.  What’s great about a game is that you know when you are winning.  How to win in getting to know people is to ask questions.  Don’t reward interrogating, but reward questions that show genuine interest.  Games have feedback, and taking a few minutes to talk about the conversation and what went well and what was awkward will really help both of you.
  • Model good boundaries.  Don’t over-share, gossip, exaggerate, be secretive, or allow your conversation to become in-appropriate.  Focus on showing and teaching that conversations can be steered and that it is our job to be the leader.
  • Be open and real about your feelings.  Your kids benefit from knowing that certain things are scary and hard, but you do them anyway.  My guess is that we could learn from our kids in this area.  They seem to make friends faster than we do.

I don’t think we can ever eliminate the tension of walking into a room of people we don’t know or meeting someone new. However, by being a bit more purposeful, we can not only help our kids be prepared for being great adults, but I think we can also help them be less vulnerable to strangers as kids.  A strong kid that shows confidence and social aptitude is much less likely to be targeted or groomed.  So while it seems counter-intuitive, I believe we can protect our kids by teaching them to talk to strangers.

What do you think?  How have you helped your kids become better at meeting and talking with people they don’t know?