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Talking to Strangers, in a Good Way — How to Encourage a Friendly Child

How to Encourage a Friendly ChildOn the subway the other day, my son noticed his neighbor studying a map of the transit system on her smartphone. He leaned in close, attracted by the bright screen. “I have a subway map in my room,” he told her.

“You do?” she asked, revealing herself to be an Australian tourist.

“Uh-huh. We ride the train a lot. I like riding the train. This is the 2 train and we’re riding it downtown, to Bergen Street. Isn’t that right Da-da?”

I confirmed that this was indeed the case, unable to hide a smile of both amusement and pride.

“You obviously know more about these trains than I do!” the woman said.

And then he changed the subject: “I got a new trike.”

They went on like that, chit-chatting about transit and toys, sometimes with an interjection from me. I was more interested to hear about her life in the Australian bush than Felix, who just wanted to tell her about how he’d never been on a long airplane trip before, but has traveled by New Jersey Transit, a ride which also takes a while. When her stop came she thanked him for the conversation and then said, “Now I can tell my friends I met a man on the New York City subway.”

“I’m only a little boy!” Felix corrected her.

I tell ya, what a little charmer. But that’s what it’s been like traveling with him these days, with his fourth birthday on the horizon. Whether we’re on the subway or shopping at the Food Coop, he’s taken to saying hi to people, telling them a little about himself — usually his love of trikes, trains, and television — and he might question them about what they’re doing, or buying. One time he asked a woman with her foot in a cast why she had that funny big boot on, and I sometimes worry that he might do that thing kids sometimes do, making observations about a person’s age or race or weight or disability in a way that isn’t deliberately rude but which is socially unacceptable nonetheless. So far though, that hasn’t been the case.

On top of this gregariousness outside the house, he’s become a gracious host when we have people over. “When are our guys coming over?” he asked last week, when we were expecting old college buddies for dinner. It didn’t take long before he took each person by the hand, leading them upstairs so he can “show them his room,” though as of a few minutes before, he had never met them. I guess our friends are his friends.

A lot of time when we talk about strangers and children, it’s to warn kids against the tricky or dangerous adults, and the time for that conversation will come, I’m sure. But right now, when Felix is never unaccompanied by a trustworthy adult, and when he gets the parental cue that, yes, it’s okay to interact with this new person, I see something cool — an openness to meeting new people, an ease at talking to them and establishing connections, a tendency to see the right kind of stranger as an opportunity to make a new friend. Felix is astute in this too. He doesn’t engage with people who are withdrawn or give off unfriendly vibes, but people who make eye contact and smile at him he cozies up to. (I must admit, this turns out to be women more than men. Perhaps because they pay more attention to him, or maybe Felix is just a four-year-old Don Juan in the making, I don’t know.)

When do we lose this friendly attitude? At what point do we start to distrust the world, to hunch our shoulders and tighten inward, shutting off strangers? I’ve ridden the subway for fourteen years at this point, and don’t think I’ve ever struck up a conversation that lasted as long as Felix’s with that Australian woman.

I think, in part, this results from us holding accountable talk with Felix. This is a term I picked up when teaching, which means that you talk to a child in a way that encourages them to think deeply about a subject — asking lots of questions, and questions of different types — and then, and this is the kicker, you listen to what they say and seriously respond to it. In other words, you don’t just ask yes/no right/wrong questions, you have a conversation in which what you say, and how well you listen, matters. You create a safe space for the child to express their thoughts, opinions, and feelings, and to ask questions about themselves, the family, and the world. (Natural inclination plays a role as well. The kid’s always been a talker.)

Felix’s developing confidence at communicating (at least with adults) is a great thing, and something I’d like to encourage. It’s heartening to me, seeing how he reaches out to people, and how easy it can be to strike up a conversation. I often feel shy when meeting new people, but Felix has shown me that it doesn’t take much to break the ice. A good question, a thoughtful response when the person answers, a smile.

If only we all kept this in mind, just think how much friendlier the world — and subway — would seem.

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