As parents, we are vigilant about teaching kids “stranger danger” but I think a more effective safeguard for children would be to teach strangers not to even interact with kids. Even if their intentions are pure, whether admiring a sweet baby or being unable to resist complimenting a toddler’s adorable hairstyle, strange adults interacting with kids is kind of gross (to me). While attempting to put a hand on my children is an absolute no-no, there are also things no stranger should ever say to my kids. I really don’t understand this compulsion adults have to befriend someone else’s little one.
I would love it if every passerby on the street would just ignore my child, so I don’t have to get my guard up and go into “Mama bear” protective mode at the sound of some person I don’t know trying to engage my kid in conversation. This seems so weird to me. I am all for interacting with young children in appropriate settings, like if you’re a teacher, or the parent of one of the kid’s friends, or a party magician (well, even that’s weird to me). However, to the person behind me on line at the supermarket who chooses to pass the time by attempting to delight, cajole, or (worse) school my squirmy toddler, what are you thinking?
Don’t hold out your finger to grab, don’t pretend to steal their noses, and definitely don’t say these things, as a stranger, to my kids:
“What A Pair Of Lungs On That One”
I know my kid is loud. I am holding him. And I am on to you. You are not politely stating the obvious. Instead, you are shaming me because you are within earshot of my child while they are being a child. A human. With feelings. And not five decades (or more, it seems, in your particular case) of emotional development that prevents someone like you (or me, in this scenario) from screaming just because we don’t like what people are telling us.
I do not enjoy my child pitching a fit in public any more than you do. Please refrain from remarking on the volume of my child’s wailing. If not, you risk having me push this stroller that much closer to you. You’ve been warned.
“You Being Good For Your Mommy?”
Honestly, this question is just awkward, even if it wasn’t coming from a stranger. I guess people just can’t help themselves, and small children have literally no defenses, so strangers take that as an invitation to drill down on behavior and discipline. As much as I’d like to bark obscenities at the person who poses this question to my kid, I keep it together, mash my lips into a forced smile and nod. Then I brace myself for what’s coming next.
“Don’t Give Your Mom A Hard Time”
First the inane question, then the warning. Nobody ever had any words of wisdom for me until I had kids. Then, I became the target for every stranger’s piece of parenting advice. This statement, though, is more of a threat than counsel. While the person’s heart is in the right place, recognizing that parenthood is enough work even when a child is cooperative, it’s mighty presumptuous for this stranger to think we are being helped, in the least, by this empty directive to try to get my kid to understand the value of good behavior.
“What A Daredevil”
Please don’t say that to my child, hanging a full 12 feet above my head on playground equipment made for older kids. You’re just encouraging this behavior and my heart literally can’t take it.
“You’ve Got A Good Appetite”
As someone who grew up with food and body image issues, I am extremely sensitive to remarks made about eating when it comes to my kids. I am determined to raise them with healthy and positive feelings about their bodies, and to never be self-conscious about their relationship with food. Being made to feel bad about liking sweets, or preferring carbs over veggies is, as I’ve learned firsthand, a recipe for disordered eating.
It took me a long time to get to a place where I’m not constantly thinking about food — how many calories I’ve consumed and how much I’ll have to exercise to offset them. There are so many things I want my children to have the brain space for rather than measuring their lives in pasta portions.
So I don’t need someone commenting about how voraciously my kid attacks a piece of pizza. We keep plenty of healthy food around, and it’s OK to eat some crappy stuff occasionally without making a big deal. While my kid may be opening wide to shovel that hot dog in, I suggest you keep your mouth shut about it.
“What A Cutie You Are”
And what a creepy person you are. While I have noticed no shortage of adult men sharing their opinion on my appearance (ranging from lurid appreciation to gross insult, because I didn’t heed their command to smile), they have not been, in my experience, the ones who also have something to say about small children. I mean, those people exist and they are the worst people, but since becoming a mom I have noticed that the strangers who are most likely to feel free enough to tell my kids how they’re nailing adorability skew older and are, more often than not, alone.
Or they’re a group of teenage girls trolling moms at the fro-yo shop for babysitting gigs.
“I Like Your Outfit”
Should anyone care what a stranger thinks of a child’s ensemble? Comments like these come off innocently but I recognize them for what they are: power plays. Having grown up in New York City, and having worn a bra since fifth grade, I have been getting catcalled since I was 11 years old by adult men. Any attention paid to my body was uncomfortable, even if it was in the form of a compliment on my sweater color. There is simply no need for adults to express opinions about our children’s appearances. What they may think is a nice thing to do can actually be quite harmful, as we don’t need our children feeling that it is open season on their looks, and that anyone has the right to remark upon them.
I don’t eschew all compliments paid to children. For kids, the approval of their peers and parents is vital, and my children beam when I admire how they’ve styled themselves or praise them for having kept their shirts clean through a meal. But strangers can keep their comments to themselves, thanks.
“What Do You Say?”
This is a prompt for my child to rotely respond “Thank you” to whatever kind statement or gesture this stranger just made. I am all for good manners, and admittedly, I force my kids to show their appreciation for someone’s generosity in the form of a card or a drawing. But that’s in response to family members or friends — people with whom it is integral to foster healthy, positive relationships where there is give and take. That is not to say I wouldn’t want to encourage kindness among strangers, but I would like the strangers to stay within their own peer group.
If a 4-year-old child we didn’t know shared a toy with my child on the playground, that is a hugely considerate act for a child, and a good way to start a potential friendship. But my child does not need, nor do I want her to have, adults as friends. Random grown-ups do not need to prove to me, through generosity towards my children, that they would make a good pal for a preschooler. They do not need to do anything, and thus, they should not ask for anything in return from my youngster. They need to seek approval from someone their own size.
“Do You Want A Baby Sister Or Brother?”
Oh hell no. What makes someone say this? Do I look like I don’t have my hands full enough, with the stroller loaded down with groceries, an overstuffed diaper bag, a scooter (and a kid, somewhere in there)? Why even introduce the possibility of a sibling if you’re not intending to stick around to help raise it? I will never understand why strangers think it’s perfectly fine to broach the topic of family planning with toddlers they meet on the street.
“Stay In School, Kids”
Don’t say this and expect me to find it funny. But definitely expect my kid to look at you like you just told the world’s worst joke, because you did. I don’t disagree with this remark but no one thinks it’s cute anymore, now that we have a Secretary of Education who doesn’t actually believe in public education, which is (until this current administration further undermines it) a right of every child in this country.