Get Over It, My Toddler Doesn’t Want to Talk To You

April 15, 2017  |  

forcing your toddler to be social

If you’ve ever lived in the same house as a toddler, you know that each day is filled with highs and lows. In the span of a few minutes my daughter can go from hysterically laughing at how the dog laps up water to having a meltdown because she can’t get the preview guide off the TV screen. There isn’t a day where I’m not shocked by the fact that she’s learned a new phrase whether it’s “Shut up” or “shoes” and most days I feel like even I’m still getting to know her even though she once was neighbors with my spleen. So it always amazes me when family members and total strangers alike utter, “I don’t think your kid likes me.”

Whether she’s seeing one of my friends for what may be the third time in her life or meeting a new co-worker, if my kid isn’t serving a huge smile with a “Ms. America” wave because she you’ve said, “Hi!”, don’t take it personally. She’s not throwing shade, she’s being a toddler. And you, my friend, are just one part of the big colorful and confusing world she’s still figuring out. When I came across the story, “Sorry, But I’m Never Going to Force My Kid to Say ‘Hi’ To You”, author Latifah Miles reminded me that there are still many people, both parents and child-free folks that could use a crash course in ages and stages, particularly when it comes to social development. Here’s the cliff notes version: Most children won’t start to fall into formation with society when it comes to social skills until age 5 or 6. Until then, children can be very selfish creatures who don’t care about anyone else’s feelings or comfort level. And that’s totally normal behavior, because until then it’s the parent’s job to teach them how to conduct themselves in the world regarding manners, social cues, boundaries and other things that contribute to us being able to function in a world alongside one another respectfully.

Miles also reminds us that in addition to understanding a child’s developmental stage, there also should be an understanding that yes even children have their own personalities, and like her son, some are more reserved than others:

“Looking back, I understand most of my mother’s rules now that I’m a parent but making my kid say hello to strangers is not one of them.”

“Outside of close family, he simply never really expresses a desire to entertain conversations with strangers. And honestly? I’ve never seen an issue with it.”

When it comes to my own childhood, I can remember my mother’s rules coinciding with rules that are common in African-American culture like, “Respect your elders.” “Don’t speak unless spoken to.” “Stay in a child’s place.” And “When you enter a room you greet people.” I get that these rules are supposed to encourage respect and manners, and while I want to raise my child to be polite (a trait that I worry is becoming a rarity) I also want her to not feel like she has to ever apologize for her personality, whether she’s a welcoming committee all by herself or just wants to quietly observe. Miles points out the fact that all too often folks don’t take into consideration that children are allowed to have feelings too:

“Often times, society treats babies and young children as these little humans with only two settings: on and off. When they’re on, they’re expected to be on: happy and smiling and doing something cute. When they’re off, it’s only because they’re asleep. The truth is that my child, and yours too, are human — allowed to have a bad day, irritated emotions, and to be in moods where they don’t want to talk to people.”

She points out that just as she has bad days as an adult where she’s feeling slightly anti-social and avoids small talk, her son has “off days” too and that’s OK:

“Sometimes he’ll want to speak to every single person he passes — the mailman, the guy walking his dog across the street, it doesn’t matter. On any given day his mood towards strangers and friends varies and I have a difficult time seeing the problem why I should force him to be ‘more friendly.’”

Whether I’m at a family dinner meeting “Cousin So and So” from down South or I’m dropping my two-year-old off at Grandma’s house early in the morning, sometimes she’ll get clingy, hide behind my leg or look away when someone says, “Good morning.” Before anyone gets all offended I’m quick to remind them that every kid isn’t going to be like Caillou greeting the world and getting into mischief; sometimes they just want to be left alone and it isn’t about you. I feel like one of my main responsibilities as a mother is to make sure my daughter has a childhood and enjoys it. My first obligation is to her developing feelings and not your insecurities. She’ll have plenty of time for awkward small talk and shallow morning greetings with colleagues that she’ll forced to do out of the social norms that come with being an adult. For now she has right to observe the world and see what makes sense to her as far as functioning in it, a right that all children should have according to Miles:

“I understand that kids are undoubtedly significantly less complex than adults when it comes to deep emotions, but let’s not forget that they still have feelings. The purpose of not forcing my son to entertain the pleasantries of strangers when he doesn’t feel like it is because I want to honor and respect his autonomy. He doesn’t always have to do things because I said so.”

“If he doesn’t want to say hi to the neighbor today because the only things on his mind are kicking off his velcro sneakers, sipping on some cold chocolate milk, and watching a Disney channel until he falls asleep, I totally get it. I don’t think it’s rude. I see it as my son beginning to work through the emotions, desires, and thoughts that are only going to get more and more complicated as he gets older.”

I always say that as a parent, my first priority is to raise my child to be the person whose behavior I’d be proud of even when she isn’t right up under me. For me that means having a daughter who has manners and can interact with others politely but authentically, be a decent judge of character and be honest about when she doesn’t want to be bothered. It’s not that I’m grooming my child to be an entitled, impolite jerk, but I am allowing her to express her inner, “I’m just not that into you,” instead of forcing her to engage with folks she’d prefer not to for the sake of their fragile egos. And that goes for whether she’s three or twenty-three.

Toya Sharee is a Health Resource Specialist who has a  passion for helping young women build their self-esteem and make well-informed choices about their sexual health. She also advocates for women’s reproductive rights and blogs about  everything from beauty to love and relationships. Follow her on Twitter @TheTrueTSharee or visit her blog, Bullets and Blessings.

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