It was a normal trip to our local mall with an obligatory (and too expensive) carousel ride and visit to Pinkberry for yogurt. I then decided to treat my almost 4-year-old daughter to an even bigger surprise at Build-A-Bear Workshop.
She was ecstatic, excitedly skipped into the store looking for a My Little Pony. Everything was going well until an older male employee came up and tried to talk to her. “Are you ready to stuff your pony?” he asked. He was nice with a bright smile, but the eagerness in her eyes was replaced by immediate fear as she shut down and glued herself to my side. Feeling embarrassed, I smiled an apology to the man and steered her away.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, getting down to her level. She silently shook her head and looked over my shoulder at the employee who’d followed behind us. He asked again if we were ready to stuff her toy animal. Knowing that I had to get it over with, I picked up my daughter and led her to the machine. The man kept trying to engage her, even after we had finished, to the point that she was on the verge of tears.
My embarrassment quickly faded and was replaced by protectiveness. “Please excuse us,” I told him, leading her away to the other side of the store. The moment he was out of sight, she perked right up and flounced off to give her pony a “bath.”
I found myself wondering about that nebulous balance between teaching my daughter to be polite while also trusting her instincts. How often do we drill the “Don’t talk to strangers” concept into our children?
It must be confusing to a 4-year-old to receive the mixed messages we’re sending:
Be polite (but don’t talk to strangers)!
It’s okay to talk to strangers when I’m present (even if you don’t want to because it’s rude to ignore people).
Trust your feelings.
I believe children are highly intuitive — much more so than adults forced to conform to societal expectations of politeness even when it makes us uncomfortable. But I want to equip my daughter with the power and self-confidence to say, “No, please respect my space.”
If for some reason a stranger freaks her out, I will absolutely no longer force her to speak to them. Be courteous? Yes. Engage in conversation? No. Because while I understand that some people don’t have the social skills to know when enough is enough, it’s up to me to make sure my daughter feels safe and protected. And when I’m not there to keep an eye on her, I need to know she has the confidence and manners to navigate those awkward situations.
I’ve since taught her that when she feels uncomfortable or scared it’s polite to say, “I’m feeling quiet right now,” because I don’t like using the word shy, and frankly, she doesn’t have to say anything further. These occasions are rare since she usually loves everyone she meets, but if you see us out in public and my daughter suddenly turns quiet, it’s just me trying to teach her about boundaries and respect.