One of my favorite parenting decisions came while on the playground with my oldest son when he was shy of two years old. He saw another child’s tricycle, something which he had yet to experience, and naturally wanted to try it out. The common reaction at playgrounds is for kids to be told, “That’s not yours. Sorry, you can’t play with it.” So, my first thought was, “It would upset the other child and we shouldn’t put them in that situation.” But I thought a bit longer, feeling very committed to parenting with positive responses when possible (and -ugh- I really need to work on this again!). I realized we would almost always be happy to share, so why not give it a try with this family? I encouraged Charlie to go ask that child if it was alright to take a turn. I modeled the words for him at his developmental level first, “Turn with tricycle, please?” and we walked hand-in-hand together to the little boy and his mom. Charlie asked but wasn’t understood (darn toddler articulation), so I repeated his request. And you know what? They said, “Sure!” Then they asked to borrow a shovel Charlie brought. Both kids were happy as they learned the benefits of requesting and sharing in the best, most tangible way for that moment.
That decision seemed so small at the time but it has impacted our everyday life with kids in a pretty dramatic way. In hindsight I realize that we were making a choice to embrace and trust our immediate community, wherever we were, whether we knew them or not. We were allowing other people to be responsible for their own boundaries instead of assuming the worst and deciding not to “bother” them. We were also taking the risk that the boys would be turned down, and that we could all survive the sad cries that would ensue. They’d be alright, I’d be alright. The risk was worth it.
This attitude has allowed our boys to experience an incredible array of fun situations, activities and toys that they would’ve otherwise been steered away from. I’d guess that 99% of people respond positively. I realize this seems so simple and obvious, but in my countless experiences at playgrounds and other venues since making this choice, I find that it is very unusual for caregivers to allow children to ask others to explore something, borrow things or take turns if it requires interacting with strangers.
With our oldest, this increased confidence with approaching and asking others has generalized to him being very comfortable talking with most adults, handling transactions in a marketplace with ease, and being willing to share how he’d prefer for situations to be handled. It has led to Charlie feeling comfortable asking random construction workers if he could sit in their vehicle’s cabs, countless dogs being pet by Miles, snacks being shared, cockpits being viewed. We could wait and hope people will see the little boys’ longing eyes and be willing to offer, but now I much prefer they take the lead when possible..
I think it is really empowering. It allows them to make specific requests regarding their genuine interests as they’re out and about, not just what caregivers think they’ll find cool. Most adults love fulfilling a little child’s request. They love hearing the little voice ask them, seeing their wide-eyes and smiles during the experience, and receiving a lovely little two year old “fank you!” afterwards. I encourage my boys to request their own special treats when we hit our local doughnut shop or favorite bakery. Initially (in the late ones and early twos), both boys needed me to walk them through protocol. “First we wait in line. It’s not our turn yet. When it’s our turn, you can ask.” [Wait, wait, wait. Ack! This is taking forever. Hold on, child.] “Now you can ask for it.” Miles still needs some models and sometimes the vocabulary for what he wants, Charlie often needs a reminder to say “please”. I usually try to whisper it in his ear with hopes that my reminder doesn’t embarrass him, as he’s getting to that age. But let me tell you, they get the best responses from the employees. Everyone wins- the boys are confident and pleased with themselves, the employees get a serious dose of cuteness. I get to take in the sweetness of it all.
PS: If you’re too worried about stranger-danger to try this, I think this website might have some good advice for you. FYI- I’m there all the time and don’t allow any dangerous requests to be fulfilled.