Don’t stop your child from being friendly

My 6-year-old son Liam is so friendly that it’s a problem sometimes.

It’s a problem because once he has started talking he doesn’t stop. Well-meaning people have been stuck talking to him for much longer than they intended. They ask an innocuous question (like “How are you?”) or answer his innocuous question (like “What’s that?”) and there we all are, while Liam talks. And talks.

But that’s the only problem I see with it. I don’t worry about it the way other people often seem to worry about their child’s friendliness. “She’s too friendly,” parents say to me in clinic. The implicit concern is that friendly children are more at risk of being kidnapped or otherwise preyed upon—because they are more likely to chat up or trust people, and some people are dangerous.

So here’s what I think. It’s really important to teach kids to be safe—to make sure that they never go anywhere with anyone without telling you, for example, and always get away and tell someone if a grownup does something that makes them uncomfortable. But please, please, don’t squelch their friendliness.

There’s a famous Bible story about Jesus and the loaves and the fishes. He is preaching to thousands of people, and his disciples realize that the people need to eat—but they have no food for them. Jesus starts asking where they can buy food. A little boy steps forward and says: I’ve got five loaves and two fishes.

Give them to the people, Jesus says to the disciples, who look at him like he’s gone off the deep end. Really? Five loaves and two fishes for thousands of people? Are you out of your mind? Do it, Jesus says. And at the end, the leftovers filled 12 baskets. Growing up, I always heard the story told as an example of Jesus’s miracles: he multiplied the loaves and fishes and made enough for everyone.

My dear, dear friend Jim Field, a priest, had a different take on this story. In Jesus’s day, he said, it would have been unheard of for people to go hear someone talk without taking food with them. But as they looked around at those thousands of people, they tucked that food up their sleeves. I’m not sharing with this crowd, they said to themselves.

And then a little boy shared his food. And in that moment, as he gave what he had, the others took out their food. Here’s what Jim said in his sermon about this story:

Two possibilities. The bread and fish get mysteriously, almost magically multiplied in the basket. Miracle. Second possibility, greedy selfish hearts get changed. People start bringing their hidden lunches into the light of day, but before they feed themselves, they feed their neighbors. Everybody gives. No one is left out. 

Liam, mid-sentence

Kindness begets kindness. Friendliness begets friendliness.

I see this with Liam all the time. As he talks to the person next to us in line, the businessman on the train, the old lady in church, the little girl in the sandbox or the cashier at the store, something happens. They don’t really mean to start talking with him, but he’s so earnest and engaging that they can’t help themselves. And soon they are smiling and it’s as if something has lifted, something is different in a way that we all feel but can’t quite describe. It’s quietly wonderful.

So teach your child to be safe, but don’t stop them from being friendly. Let them be the change we want to see in the world. Be it with them.

6 thoughts on “Don’t stop your child from being friendly

  1. It wouldn’t hurt to allow a hug as well.  Our Nation is getting so paranoid that hugs are becoming taboo.  Kids need hugs.  I watched the end of a National League baseball game.  These grown, jocks ran up to each other and gave the typical group hugs.  Yet, we tell teachers not to hug children.  Go figure!

  2. My soon to be five year old daughter is fearlessly social with strangers and I do have the normal concerns. I do need to teach her who to comfortably talk to, what to look for as possible signs of danger and what to do if she feels threatened. Yet, I am always telling her the phrase “share a smile, get a smile back in return”. Our children certainly can teach us not to be such a introverted, afraid of each other society!!! Love the twist on the bible story. Let’s teach our children and ourselves to be more kind hearted.

    1. The problem with this attitude is it’s never the people we think are scary, right?  The serial killers and the mass shooters out there-no one expects them to do this based on their looks and background.  In fact we try to analyze why they did it for weeks because they don’t “look” like people we think should do this or come from a background that we feel people who do this sort of thing should.  It’s this lack of awareness that is victimizing unsuspecting individuals every day.
      We tend to teach our children to “profile” the wrong type of person oftentimes based on our own personal prejudices.  Because you never know, I think it should be the same across the board.  Children understand consistency.  Cognitively they have not developed enough to the point where they understand nuance.  

  3. I thought that I was a little crazy for letting my kids be friendly. It is really good feeling to know I am not the only one that thinks this way. I have 3 kids ages 12, 3 (almost 4) and a 2 yr-old. The two little ones are super friendly and I think it is a wonderful thing. They are full of personality and it shines ALL the time!  Sometimes they don’t want to talk to people or answer any of their questions and this is ok too. I figure if they are feeling some type of uncomfortable vibe than why force them to respond. In my opinion kids tend to be more in tune with these types of situations sometimes. Chances are that if a child that is friendly is all of a sudden uncomfortable; it’s for a reason.  Thanks for sharing your thoughts Dr. McCarthy!!

  4. I love how people can have a totally unfounded interpretation of the bible like our friend Jim here.  That miracle, yes miracle, that happened in the bible was about Jesus teaching his disciples a lesson.  So the idea that Jim would completely leap to a conclusion that is not written in the text is extremely arrogant.  I know that is not what this story is supposed to be about, but that was a terrible anecdote, especially for any person who is a student of the bible.  I can’t even believe Jim is an actual preacher in a pulpit telling “feel-good” stories like this that he practically made up with no evidence.  Jim’s interpretation completely takes away from your point.

    I think children need to learn how to be safe.  They can be friendly, but just know those are the kind of children predators prey upon.  Not the ones who know to immediately run to an adult.  Adults are typically much more highly intelligent than children and a child is not going to know always to read body language and eye contact.  I can speak very nicely to a child while I walk up to him and take him away.  Unless you are always with your child when he is being this friendly, I would never give this advice.  The world is not a safe place at all.

  5. thx for this story.  i love your son!  it’s a topic that we have grappled with as we don’t want to squash our kids’ spirits (4 yo b-g twins and my son does most of the talking and is extremely extroverted).  i’m sharing this.  thx a bunch.

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