Not Smiling


    Miriam offers perspectives on how to teach toddlers to respond to different kinds of attention from strangers.

    Dear Miriam,

    I live in Center City with my wife and our 1 year old, and we spend a lot of time walking the streets with her in a stroller. We say hi to strangers and are trying to teach our daughter to be friendly and respectful to our neighbors and to people we pass each day. However, we’ve come up against a particular type of interaction recently that we don’t know how to handle. We recently walked past a group of men on the street who said things like, “Hi pretty lady,” and, “Give me a smile,” to my daughter. When someone says hello, we say hello back. When someone says something mean or insulting, we ignore and keep walking. How do we teach our daughter the difference between “hi,” and “hi,” when one is genuine friendliness and one is akin to a toddler cat call? I want to teach her how to stand up for herself while also continuing to teach these other values. Any suggestions?

    Not Smiling

    Dear Smiling,

    I also spend a lot of time walking through the city with my kids, and I also try to model being friendly to strangers. We often say hello to people, even if we don’t know them, and sometimes we make friendly conversation. Then, sometimes, people are terrible, like the man who yelled at me yesterday because I was taking up too much room on the sidewalk while pushing one kid in the stroller and holding another kid’s hand. I said, “I am doing the best I can,” not necessarily in my friendliness voice, and kept walking. My daughter had a lot of questions about what he said, why he said it and how I responded. It was ultimately a tedious experience, having to recap all of the social implications in this really aggravating interaction, but she learned something about how people relate to each other.

    Your daughter is much younger, but you can start that conversation to help frame your interactions and give her the tools to identify different kinds of language. After you say hi to someone, you can say to your daughter, “Wasn’t that man friendly? Isn’t it nice to wish people a good morning?” If someone says something that makes you uncomfortable, you can respond, like I did, or you can ignore the person. Then you can say to your daughter, “That didn’t seem like someone I wanted to talk to today,” or, “What he said wasn’t respectful, so I decided not to answer.” When my kids ask why someone says something mean or rude, I usually say, “Maybe he’s having a bad day,” or, “Some people have different ideas of how to talk to each other.” Your one year old isn’t going to be able to process the nuance, but she will be able to understand that you have boundaries and that that means she can have boundaries, too.

    Learning that you don’t have to smile for a stranger is a child-friendly way of beginning to learn about consent, which is something all kids, and a lot of adults, need to practice. Just today at the playground, I overheard two parents talking to their children about hitting, and one parent said, “You can’t touch a person who says, ‘Don’t touch me.'” If you read the news, like, at all, you’ll know that what defines consent and the consequences of not repsecting consent are a matter of ongoing public discourse. Empowering your daughter from a young age to feel comfortable saying to a grown-up, “I don’t feel like smiling,” or, “I don’t want a hug,” will set her up for success throughout her life as she navigates various interpersonal relationships from family, friends and strangers.

    Having and showing respect is a hugely important value for you to be imparting, but in a discussion about respecting elders or kindness to strangers, it’s always worth working into the conversation what to do when your daughter feels disrespected herself. She probably can’t walk away from a great-aunt who is requesting a kiss, but she can learn to say, “No thank you. How about a high five instead?” She can, however, walk away from a man on the street who’s complimenting her eyes or asking her to smile. As for the difference between “hi,” and “hi,” kids are highly intuitive, and if you teach her that if something makes her uncomfortable, she’s allowed to feel uncomfortable, you’re giving her great skills to be able to decipher all kinds of interactions as she moves through both Center City and through her life.

    Be well,