A mother and child stood behind me in line at the grocery store yesterday. The young boy was having great fun playing with the candy bars and all the colorful packages. He suddenly stopped that for a moment and walked up to look over my purchases. Next, he looked up at me.
I briefly said to him, "Hello. Are you having fun shopping at Trader Joe's?"
He quickly nodded and said with a big smile, "Yes, very much."
The young boy's mother was standing right behind him watching the entire time. She immediately grabbed the boy by the arm, pulled him aside, and whispered to him in an angry tone of voice.
"Do you remember what I told you about talking to strangers? You are never to talk to strangers, do you understand me?"
The little boy nodded "yes", almost in tears after this scolding. He returned to stand silently in line behind me, trying so hard to look away.
In the meantime the cashier and I continued one of those conversations normal people often initiate when they are out in public. We probably just talked about the weather, or if I found everything I was looking for in the store today. The point is, we socialized.
RIGHT OR WRONG?
Young parents probably agree with the scolding given to the little boy. Many of the latest trendy books on raising children include this recommendation:
Teach your children never to talk to strangers.
McGruff, the Crime Dog, likely teaches a similar lesson.
In the case of a child playing alone out in front of a house, it makes some sense to teach them not to talk to any stranger that happens to drive past. However what about when the child is standing right next to mother, inside a grocery store?
What are we really accomplishing when we teach a 5-year old child to be afraid of talking to all strangers, even if mother is standing right there? If the child truly takes that lesson to heart what has the mother really done?
At what age does the No-Talking-To-Strangers rule get relaxed?
"OK, son, you're 13 today, now you can talk to all strangers."
"Jane, now that you are 11 you may talk to strangers in line at the grocery store but not at the butcher shop."
WHY DO WE TALK TO STRANGERS?
My mother never once told me, "Never talk to strangers" though I was taught not to take any rides in cars with people I did not know.
I met my first girlfriend, my wife, and many other wonderful companions all because I was willing to talk to strangers.
Every single work opportunity of my adult life has involved speaking to countless numbers of total strangers. I only worked in retail stores for perhaps 6 months of a 30-year work history. People who work retail, restaurant, or sales positions will talk to even more strangers over the course of a career.
My spoken vocabulary includes thousands of important words that I learned from total strangers.
Most of my fantastic experiences living and traveling overseas have resulted from talking to strangers.
Strangers are the only people who have ever helped me when my car has broken down in distant lands.
Society will quickly become a really dismal place if we teach all our children not to socialize. Ultimately, every normal child does have to talk to strangers, just to get through childhood and grammar school. A king's little prince may be entitled to live that ridiculous sequestered life but not a child of middle-class America.
It is far more important that parents teach their children to be discerning as they travel through life. Children do need to learn how to identify people they can safely talk to. It is also important to understand there are some situations where we can trust one another more easily. For example, there is a difference between encountering a well-dressed stranger in line at the grocery store and a stranger dressed in rags you may stumble over in a dark alley.
A person that has not learned how to initiate and a carry on a conversation with the right people is left at a serious disadvantage later in life. The best opportunities are often discovered by word-of-mouth. Talking is what humans do that sets them apart from most other living things, without speech we live at a definite disadvantage, ask any hearing-impaired person.
Of course I do not know the best answer to this situation but I do know one thing. Nobody wants to live in a society where all the people are so afraid of criminals that they stop talking to each other.