Have you been there? You’ve popped into Tesco on your lunch break for a sandwich and run into your friend from the gym who you haven’t seen in a while. You find out she had a baby! And 3 lockdowns later, that baby is walking and talking.
“Ohh it’s so nice to see you!”
“Oh, and who’s this? Hello bubba!!”
You’re happy to move past it, make plans for coffee and get back to your desk, but now Mary’s making an issue out of it.
Say hello, Teddy. No, say hello to the lady, Teddy THIS IS MY FRIEND.
It’s up there as one of the most embarrassing things parents of toddlers do: stop everything and everyone in their tracks to INSIST that their child says hello (or please, or thank you).
It used to make me cringe so hard. Let’s just move on already, the child doesn’t have a clue who I am, why are we making this awkward.
But now, as a parent, I get it. I totally get it! Now, whether it’s the lady at the checkout, and old friend of mine, or a child from school, I try to make sure my kids have said hello.
Kids live socially, very sheltered lives. From a young age, parents are encouraged to stretch children’s physical and mental capacities - take them outdoors, give them engaging toys, read to them, encourage sensory play and role play… the list goes on. But there isn’t necessarily the encouragement to push their social boundaries in the same way; to go out of our way to get them to mix with new people of diverse ages, classes, cultures.
I’d go as far as to say this is true of us grown ups too - and especially true in urban family set ups where you’re not so likely to start up a conversation with a stranger. So, raising a family in London for example, we’d all agree that kindness and diversity and inclusion are important… but it’s hard to get children to put these things into practice day-to-day.
So, simply put, I use saying hello to people as a microcosm for all these things in my kids’ lives: to practise being kind, or inclusive, or friendly… even when you don’t feel like it (because it’s the bit that is outside of their comfort zone that stretches it).
Saying hello to a person that is unfamiliar to them makes a shy child test their bravery. It makes a sulky child practice self-control over their emotions. It makes a passive child practise leadership by initiating a conversation (in the safe space of boundaries set by the responsible parent!)*. It makes a child easily led by peers have to do something that makes them stand out from the crowd.
Kids who find it easy to talk to kids but not adults get to tackle this by being made to say hello to their parents’ friends. Kids who are used to the indiscriminate, joyous applause of friendly uncles, aunts, and grandparents get to experience - and overcome! - the awkward reception of a cranky neighbour. It’s wonderful!
Saying hello can also encourage empathy. When one of my sons started to feel shy around people who he vaguely knew, but not too well, I encouraged him to consider how saying a friendly hello might affect someone who lived alone or who might not see many people in a given day. It took a few weeks, but with repeated encouragement he has had a breakthrough and tends to be a lot more cheery with his hellos.
Ultimately, this one act can help children conquer their fear of not being liked and to rise above the whim of their emotions. It builds their confidence, their compassion, and their resilience in the face of others’ vulnerabilities. Yes, it takes persistence; yes, it can make it awkward for the other person; but taking 30 seconds to say “hang on, let’s get this right” is a price worth paying in my opinion. Try it!
*I will just add one piece of important context though. I make a big deal out of asking my kids to say hello to people if they’re playing up for any reason, but the flip side of the coin is reinforcing their right to personal boundaries too.
From a young age, I’m keen to tell my kids that they don’t have to do hugs hello/goodbye with anyone they don’t want to, and just as importantly, to respect someone else saying ‘no’ about anything like that.
If anything, differentiating saying hello (or goodbye, or thank you!) from more intimate or physical interactions is a helpful way to outline the boundaries between people’s personal and social spaces.