‘Whenever we’re out and someone tries to say “hello” to my toddler, he’s very rude. He refuses to smile or answer their questions, and it gets embarrassing.
A toddler who doesn’t speak when he’s spoken to or smile when he’s smiled at isn’t being rude, he’s being normally – for a toddler, that is. Most toddlers are very uncomfortable in social encounters with adults they don’t know well (and sometimes even with those they know well but don’t see often), and they’re usually even more comfortable when prodded and prompted. (‘Come on, silly, say “hello” to Mrs. Walker’). They reject the kindness of strangers not out of ill will or orneriness, but because of natural timidity, immature social skills, or lack of common interests (Mrs. Walker doesn’t play with Legos or climb the climbing frame). Convincing your toddler to be more sociable won’t be easy, and may not even be possible during the next couple of years. But these pointers may help reduce his discomfort (and yours) in such situations:
- Care more for your toddler’s feelings than for appearances. Sure it’s embarrassing to have your child regularly ignore those who greet him. But it’s important to keep your embarrassment in perspective, to take his feelings into account, and to realize that most people understand a toddler’s reticence with strangers. So, don’t push. Accepting his timid ways fuses to be cordial will make it easier for him to become more sociable – when he’s ready. And don’t label him, by telling him not to be so rude or explaining his behaviour to others as ‘bashful’. If you do, hell have little choice but to live up to the label.
- Speak for your toddler, if he’s reluctant to speak for himself when addressed by strangers. For example, if he remains mute when a neighbour asks him, ‘What have you been doing today?’ say, ‘We’ve just been to be playground, haven’t we?’ That gives him an easy entry into the conversation. AT which point he may nod ‘yes’ or want to share an anecdote, such as ‘I went on the swings,’ or he may remain incommunicado. Provide this service ungrudgingly, whenever you sense he needs it, but always give him a chance to answer for himself first.
- Try a little play acting. Help your toddler practice his social skills at home, where he feels comfortable and confident. Stage a pretend encounter at the shops assistant, and he can be the customer. Ask him questions that he might hear from friendly adults (‘How old are you?’ ‘What a nice hat you’re wearing – is it a baseball hat?’ What’s your teddy bear name?’), and encourage him to answer. If he’s hesitant, turn the tables and play the ‘toddler’ yourself. It may be easier for him to be the grown-up asking the question.
- Set a social example. Stop and speak to friends you meet in the street, say ‘Hello, how are you?’ to the check-out clerk in the supermarket, the teller at the bank, the petrol station attendant when you stop to refuel. Chat about the weather, the price of coffee, the interest rates, the latest petrol duty. Exchange a few pleasantries with his teacher when you pick him up at preschool, with the parents of his friends after play dates, with other parents at the playground. The art of small talk is rarely inborn; most of us learn it from eavesdropping on others.
While it’s important to encourage good manners, never give your toddler the sense that you except him to be unfailingly cordial to every adult or that he must do whatever any adult tells him to do. If he’s uncomfortable about something, it’s okay to refuse.