There are many reasons why my kids find me completely embarrassing. I have no problem belting out Hungry Like the Wolf when I’m driving my tween and her friends to school and I never miss an opportunity to yell “I love you!” out the window at drop-off.
My worst offense, however, is that I talk to strangers. All the time. And especially when I’m with my kids.
Old, young, man, woman, married, single, homeless, canine — it doesn’t matter. I’m an equal-opportunity stranger engager. I’ll strike up a conversation about anything: the weather, a book I see someone reading, how hard it is to keep a toddler in the cart at Target.
At a restaurant, I’ll ask the people at the next table what they’ve ordered and if they recommend it. I chitchat with the bank security guard about our local sports teams, the UPS guy about dog breeds, and the checkout person at Trader Joe’s about recipes that involve mangoes.
I stop for short conversations with the homeless people who often dot my path through town. And when my kids are with me, they have to stop too.
They sigh and fidget. They give me that look that says “Mom, you’re being a weirdo. Let’s go already.” I pretend not to notice their discomfort and instead pull them into the conversation. Usually a simple “Right honey?” does the trick, and next thing you know, they’re nodding along, responding to the total stranger we’re now both talking to and maybe even smiling a little. They’re making contact.
In a world increasingly filled with news of violence and wrongdoing, racism, sexism and homophobia, poverty and illness, engaging with strangers feels like a way of pushing back against the negative. When I share a moment with a stranger, it’s a chance to uncover the good I firmly believe is in all of us. Smiling is an invitation to smile back.
Asking the simple question “How’s it going?” is a way to reach out and connect in this big and often lonely world. We all yearn to be part of a greater whole, to share the best parts of ourselves, but we don’t always know how. Talking to strangers is a small way of doing just that. More often than not, it’s met with equal interest and kindness. It renews my faith in humanity, dispels stereotypes, and connects me more strongly to the people around me. I want my kids to experience that too.
We all walk around in our own little worlds, our thoughts miles away or funneled into our screens. We hide behind our sunglasses or underneath the brims of our hats. We march down the street with purpose, stand in lines impatiently, or idly flip through People magazine. We have that faraway, vacant look in our eyes, as if we’re not interested in the people around us and just want to get on with our very important day.
Sometimes that really is the truth — we do just want to get on with it without interruption or aren’t in the mood for chitchat. I can generally tell if someone doesn’t want to interact or might be combative. They might avoid eye contact or ignore my initial smile. It’s important to know when to give each other space, and I make sure my kids recognize these signs as well.
For anyone worried that teaching my kids it’s okay to talk to strangers might lead to abduction and worse, you should know that I carefully coach my kids on how to interact with people they don’t know. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, approximately a fraction of 1% of all reported missing children are taken by complete strangers. So yes, there is a risk of danger when children interact with strangers, but I don’t want my kids to be afraid of everyone they pass on the street. They know not to go off with anyone and to trust their instincts. If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. They’re not being rude when they don’t say “hi” or smile, and they absolutely should not to respond to lewd or threatening remarks.
Unfortunately, there are people in this world who do want to do harm, but I don’t believe it’s the majority. In my experience, people welcome the chance to interact. When I ask them the name of their cute puppy or compliment their funky wedge sandals, it’s like flipping a switch from “off” to “on.” Their eyes light up and the corners of their mouths curl into a smile. That’s because we’re human. We crave company and community, even when it’s from a total stranger wearing yoga pants and toting all three of her kids with her to the carwash.
So yes, kids, I will continue to embarrass you by singing ’80s pop songs full tilt in front of your friends, loudly telling you I love you every day, and avidly talking to strangers — and I fully expect you to do the same.