I'll admit that my life is pretty precariously balanced right now. It's not that I need to set plans in stone but, as a mom, I thrive on routine. On Mondays, for example, we go grocery shopping. Still, all the planning in the world doesn't keep me from being tested literally every single week, not by the chore, not by my children, but by well-meaning strangers who consistently manage to throw off our groove. It's not just the grocery store, either: everywhere, sweet people, who only want to help, just need to, well, not. There are so many things well-meaning strangers need to stop when it comes to kids.
People have a lot of feels when it comes to kids and, believe me, I get it. Like, if this entire topic could have a caveat/thesis statement it would be, "I get it." I'm a natural extrovert, I adore children, and I feel like I have a good rapport with most kids I encounter. I know the instincts of well-meaning strangers because, more often than not, they are my instincts, too. However, there are times we must fight our natural inclinations in order to accommodate other people's feelings and plans, because the road to "parent hell" is paved with good intentions from kind strangers.
You've probably heard the famous Wendy Mass quote (or more likely, seen it on your favorite social media feed) that states, "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about." This goes, like, triple for parents. Balancing a child's wants, needs, triggers, and everything in between is a full-time job in and of itself, without all the other crap one has to deal with as an adult with. You waltzing into my life, stranger, with your own aims and agendas (and even if you think they are compatible with mine) is likely to cause issues and screw up a good chunk of my day (or at least my hour, which can feel like a day in parenting time).
And so, with this in mind please, just, don't do the following. Please.
Give Kids Food Without Asking
Whether my kid looked up at you with pleading puppy dog eyes after seeing you reach into your purse for a hard candy, or you just know the little tyke would love some, please do not give food to a child without consulting that child's parent first. You don't know what religious dietary restrictions, allergies, family rules, or meal schedules you might be messing with, and the consequences of even the most well-meaning "treat" run the gamut between annoying and inconvenient to deadly.
Ask A Parent, Within A Kid's Range Of Hearing, If They Want A Treat
I don't mean to nitpick here, because I do appreciate when people eager to do something nice for my little ones, consult me first. However, if that consultation is a loudly asked, "Would they like lollipops?" it's anything but helpful. All kids need to hear is "lollipop" to know that they now need one. With sweet, sugary goodness hanging in the balance, my children will harangue me until I say yes.
So, when this specific instance takes place, I now have two choices: give in even if I'd rather they not have the lollipop to avoid option two, which is a downward spiral of child emotions. Now, I am willing and capable of either, depending on my mood and the day, but I'd rather not do either. So please, if you want to give my kid a treat of some kind, ask me in a way that they cannot hear or understand. You'd really be doing me a solid and you'll potentially avoid upsetting them.
Try To Engage A Clearly Emotional Kid
Question: You see a child sobbing in the middle of a public space. Do you...
A) Give obvious, judgmental, obnoxious side-eye.
B) Offer the parent a silent, sympathetic look but simply move on
C) Start talking to the child in an attempt to make them feel better
If you answered A), this is a jerk move and I wish you'd stop, because you probably have no idea what's actually going on. However, sure, I can deal with your judgment because it's more a reflection on you than me. If you answered B) thank you very much, this is probably the best move. If you answered C), I may or may not (but definitely did) let out a sigh. This is so, so common and I get the good-natured impulse many people feel to try and help, especially from other parents. However, I would seriously pay an annual fee every year until my kid hits adulthood to never have to deal with this again.
Think about it this way: if you were really emotional, would a very tall stranger approaching you, asking what was wrong and encouraging you not to cry, make you feel better? No. It would probably freak you out and you're an adult with the ability to process social interactions way better than a child. It sucks because I know people who do this are trying to be really nice, but they are only prolonging my child's crying jag/tantrum/whatever is going on because they're anxious about some random person getting all up in their grill.
Help A Kid When You See That Their Parent Is Watching
I'm not saying you should never help a child. All too often I've been occupied with one child at the playground while another needed my help and a cool parent has stepped up to lend a hand. Perhaps they've helped my kid onto a swing or down from the jungle gym. I try to help out busy parents as well, to repay the universe for sending me good karma when I need it. This is just good citizenship. Having said that, there are other times when I am trying to get my 4-year-old or my 2-year-old to learn how to do something on their own. Like, I'm watching them, I've encouraged them, and then someone else comes along and says "Oh here, let me."
I was right here! There's a reason I was letting them work it out without adult intervention. Now I just look like a big jerk and my kid is no closer to learning how to use the monkey bars.
Touch Someone Else's Kid
The people who tend to do this the most in my life are self proclaimed "old teachers" and grandmothers. Look, I get it: kids are adorable and every now and then you want to sniff their heads or pinch their chubby legs or give them hugs. However, it's kinda weird and I wish you wouldn't. Like, ever.
For one, I don't want my kid to be under the impression that strangers are allowed to touch them, because they're not. For another, my kid doesn't exist to feed your need to love something. My kid doesn't exist to feed my need to love something, and I made my kid and birthed my kid and I'm currently raising my kid! So please, don't hug someone else's baby. Just be cool and, perhaps, the opportunity will occur naturally over time.
Give Child Permission For Something
If you don't know a kid, or if you only tangentially know a kid, you do not have the authority to tell them what they're allowed to do. Even if it's, like, let them play in your yard or take something you're offering, because the parent will have (and should have) the final say. I know you mean well, and you're probably just signaling to the parent, "Oh, it's OK, I don't mind," but you're not thinking about the fact that, for whatever reasons, the parents do mind.
Second Guess Someone Else's Parenting
Obviously no two people are going to parent exactly alike. The best thing to do when you see a parent making a different decision than you probably would, is to revisit the old adage "mother/father knows best." This is especially true when you don't know the person in question. Seriously, just don't say anything, particularly not to my kids, as it will be both passive aggressive and undermining (plus it puts kids in the middle of an adult disagreement, which is just not good for anyone involved).
Go On About How Pretty Someone's Daughter Is
This sounds obnoxious (who doesn't like a compliment), but hear me out.
It's sweet that you pay my kid a compliment and, yeah, I think she's very pretty, too. However, when strangers constantly comment on her looks (and just her looks) that's sending a few messages I'd rather she not receive:
"Your primary value lies in your appearance."
"The best way to positive attention is via your looks."
I'll also add that people do not compliment my (equally pretty, I think) son in the same way. He usually gets, "You're getting so big" or, "That's a cool toy you've got there."
What happens as my little girl gets older and doesn't have that same level of baby cuteness anymore? All of a sudden, all those people who were telling her how "precious" she was aren't there praising her anymore. It's a bummer.
This is a general plea to strangers: pay attention to how you're engaging little kids. All the random little comments they get from individual strangers have a cumulative effect.
Discipline Someone's Kid Without Expressed Permission
Unless there's an emergency situation where my kid is actively harming or about to harm you, your child, or themselves (and I'm not there), please just let me handle it. Not your kid, not your business.
Insist To Someone's Kid That What You're Doing Is OK Because "I'm Nice"/"I'm Your Friend"
When I word it that way you can probably see why I'm against it, right? I mean, it sounds really creepy and predatory even when it isn't. However, I'm aware that in the moment, sometimes, people don't necessarily get that in their attempt to win a smile from a child, they sound, um, "untoward."
Insisting that there is a level of intimacy between two strangers that does not actually exist because the adult in question wants to create a pleasant interaction, is just uncalled for and sets some potentially dangerous precedents for a child who is probably just working of a natural (and healthy) dose of stranger-danger.
Keep Trying To Win A Kid Over When It Just Isn't Happening
I cannot stress enough how I understand this particular situation, because I feel like I have probably done this with kittens or puppies in the past. In the end you just want to express your squealing delight in the adorableness of this sweet, tiny little creature that you wind up trying way too hard, even after when that tiny creature has given you all the signs that they're just not that into you.
However, just let it go. You're not going to win over the kid in the minimal amount of time you have, and your attempts are just sort of holding up the parent from whatever it is they're out and attempting to do. (And now they're having to do it with an increasingly agitated child in tow.) There will be other chances to talk to (more amenable) little kids and get a smile out of them.