“Don’t cross the road without looking both ways”, “Don’t talk with your mouth full”, and above all else, “Don’t talk to strangers.”
The first two teachings still make sense when it comes to safety and etiquette; however telling kids of all ages not to talk to strangers anymore is no longer black and white.
After talking to many parents, their obvious concern is safety. I believe the greater concerns for most parents are when strangers approach their kids or their kids engage in unsupervised conversations.
Instead of teaching kids not to talk to strangers, we should discuss scenarios and boundaries with our children on how and when it is or isn’t appropriate to engage with people we don’t know.
We stand in lines at the bank, pharmacy or at recreational events careful not to make eye contact with any of the “strangers” standing there with us.
Kids are intuitive and by being taught to avoid strangers, it often impacts their willingness and comfortability to introduce themselves to peers . Being inherently distrustful of strangers also can impact a child’s participation in different groups and their ability to make new friends.
Unconsciously, parents are creating a fear of the unknown.
As parents, it is time we start modeling appropriate behavior when talking to strangers. Let your kids see you greet strangers while they are shopping or running errands with you.
While out shopping my with my 10-year-old son , he has seen me engaging with new people and he now often engages adults in conversation by asking how they are doing or by initiating a conversation through a simple greeting and smile. He also knows basic rules of inappropriate behavior and what not to do.
By modeling and supporting conversation with strangers under the right conditions, kids benefit in many ways:
First, making and maintaining eye contact with strangers is very difficult for most pre-teens and teens. By encouraging kids to initiate conversation, it makes conversations less daunting and strangers less scary.
Second, it provides an opportunity for kids to learn how to read people with you there to provide feedback and guidance as well as what non-verbal cues or verbal cues could indicate potentially safe or unsafe details about a stranger.
Third, when you are meeting someone new, there is always a sense of unpredictability in how your engagement efforts are received. It is good for kids to learn to not take things personally. If a stranger rejects a friendly overture, kids learn that it’s not necessarily a reflection on them.
Fourth, kids have an opportunity to demonstrate empathy with a senior citizen, handicapped person or someone in need by offering a smile or some kind words of support.
Last, these interactions provide valuable opportunities to work on active listening and conversation skills.
A little small talk can make a big difference.