How To Raise A Friendly Child
Keeping me in sight, my big-eyed toddler chats at people browsing for records. He babbles at a Santa Claus looking fellow who asks him questions about the Moana CD in his hand. The three of us interact for a few pleasant minutes and then part feeling more upbeat than when we arrived. I am often told that my friendly child will make an excellent Walmart greeter. He's a friendly kid, though not always. I am happy to raise a friendly child — not just because I want him to be well-liked — but because I believe it is a tool he can use to nurture himself in times of stress and orient himself when he feels displaced. The connections he makes through friendly interactions will foster his ability to empathize with others.
In a lone 2014 Washington Post article, a psychologist advises parents to expand their children’s circle of concern with the suggestion: "Make sure your children are friendly and grateful with all the people in their daily lives, such as a bus driver or a waitress." Though there are many articles on teaching children empathy and kindness, there aren’t studies, books, or other articles on how to raise a child who has a friendly temperament, nor how to encourage a child to be more friendly. So, I sought out some answers on the subject from an expert and experienced parents.
Dr. Karen Monroe, the medical director of the child outpatient clinic at Boston-area psychiatric facility McLean Hospital says friendliness can mean many things, but to her, “friendliness involves taking time with other people in a way that is warm and welcoming and makes them feel at ease.”
Monroe explains that some people have a naturally outgoing temperament, but under the right circumstances, “introverted people can also be incredibly friendly and welcoming.” Most importantly, she adds, “Kids who feel good about themselves are more likely to go out of their way to be friendly. They feel loved, cared for, praised when things go well, and comforted when things go wrong.”
Most children who are neurodiverse can also learn the skills to be friendly, as well, according to Monroe. “Making eye contact for someone on the autism spectrum may not be easy or comfortable, but it’s something that a child can work on in the treatments they are [likely] receiving,” she shares.
The tendency is to go inward. The reality is that one of the best ways to make yourself feel better is to do something kind for someone else.
Parents can also teach and model friendliness and kindness as a value. “It’s a human need to be connected to other people,” Monroe says. We can ask ourselves and our children, “Do we value taking time with people, being kind, welcoming, interested — not just because you're supposed to or to be polite or if being nice to that person will get you something? Are people worth it to us? Is it valuable to us to connect with people?”
Friendliness, however, is not something everyone values. A 2010 Pew Research Center study showed that a third of Americans don’t know their neighbors by name. Writer and photographer from Seattle, Washington, 56-year-old Marianne Spellman is the mother of two socially adept adult sons and an outgoing 16-year-old daughter. She thinks some people may see friendliness as a sign of weakness. “But it’s the easiest thing to be withdrawn and selfish and unfriendly,” she observes. “It’s far more brave to open yourself and offer a little kindness to others… Showing friendliness to all is showing them that they matter.”
Monroe says that things like achievement orientation, materialism, or stress can impede on connection. When people are stressed, she says, “The tendency is to go inward. The reality is that one of the best ways to make yourself feel better is to do something kind for someone else.”
Spellman attributes her own friendliness to her enthusiastic and generous mother. “It was safe for me to be friendly. I had been given the tools to work with and understood that friendly behavior was kind and useful.”
She raised her children the same way.
“I think giving kids lots of early experiences in opportunities to be kind and friendly gives them the chance to hardwire their brains to the intrinsic rewards of kindness and openness. Things as simple as learning how to pet the kitty gently so it relaxes and purrs, or smiling at people and getting a smile back — or getting a smile from mom if people don’t smile back.”
Monroe suggests parents start teaching their kids the tools to be friendly at a young age, as well. When entering a new room, parents can ask, “‘Do you see someone new who is standing by themselves?’ We can teach kids to smile, make eye contact, ask a question, and listen to the answer.”
Spellman says that she remembers having the 'horrible realization that you have to teach your open, friendly kid not to walk away with strangers.'
Atlanta stylist Karla Loero-Gordon, 40, has a 4-year-old son and a sensitive, friendly 8-year-old daughter. “Before she could talk, I knew my daughter was more social than me,” says Loero-Gordon, who is friendly but not an extrovert. She teaches her daughter about kindness and friendliness by modeling behaviors she wants to impart. “You can tell a kid day and night not to chew gum, but if you chew gum, they will.”
There can be some challenges to raising a friendly child. Spellman says that she remembers having the “horrible realization that you have to teach your open, friendly kid not to walk away with strangers, or take unknown food, and feel like they could say ‘no’ to an adult. Defeating my fear as a parent that my nice kids could be more open to abuse is a never-ending struggle.”
Monroe says there have been no studies showing that friendly kids are bullied more, but from personal experience, having an outgoing personality did make me a target to more negative attention; it also helped me make social allies easier.
Monroe notes that teaching basic safety rules and social skills will help protect friendly children from harm. You can teach them that it’s good to be friendly in school or in a space where there are safe adults. Young children are usually supervised by someone you trust, but for older kids, you should teach them not to approach strange adults, which, she says, is “outside the normal bounds of social interaction, anyway.” If a strange adult talks to them, teach them to say, “I’m sorry but I’m not allowed to talk to you,” and then walk away.
The same goes for conversations with peers that are not positive. “We always want to teach our kids to know their own limits, their own boundaries and when to say no. It’s great when the conversation feels positive, everybody seems to be having a good time. But if you feel uncomfortable in a social situation, it's always OK to say, ‘I have to go,’ and walk away. If it’s uncomfortable enough, find an adult.”
When kids or teachers aren’t kind or friendly to Loero-Gordon’s daughter, she tells her, “This is going to happen to you for the rest of your life. You just have to always remain kind and friendly. I tell her to stand up for yourself, but if they are calling you names or won’t let you play with them, move on. You don’t have to play with them. You have to go where your energy is reciprocated. But you can still give out better energy than they do… It’s not about being liked, it’s about liking yourself no matter what,” she says.
“I truly think it’s empowering to face the world openly,” says Spellman. “You get shot down many times, but you will learn resilience from this, which is essential to a good life.”
As a parent, she says, “You wonder sometimes if you are teaching your kids the right things. I still want to land on the side of openness and kindness.”
Spellman’s words echo my own attitude. I am stronger because of the web of connections I’ve made by being open to others over the years. When I am friendly to 10 people and one ignores me or doesn’t like the attention, all that means is that I made nine connections. I’m happy with those numbers, and I know my son will be, too.
After experiencing a traumatic c-section, this mother sought out a doula to support her through her second child’s delivery. Watch as that doula helps this mom reclaim the birth she felt robbed of with her first child, in Episode Three of Romper's Doula Diaries, Season Two, below. Visit Bustle Digital Group's YouTube page for more episodes, launching Mondays in December.