I found myself snapping at a cashier the other day. She was trying, like well-intentioned strangers do, to engage with my three year old. Which is great. But it ends up coming all wrapped up in expectation, and judgement, like so many of our adult interactions. So my telling of this story and reflections on it are not merely meant as advice about kids, but as a perspective on how we relate to one another in general. I like to look at the things that “drive me crazy” or cause a reaction. Because it means there’s something valuable there for me to look at.
As I’ve advanced in years, I’ve gotten much better at thinking before I make a sharp retort or leaning on the sarcastic tendencies of my east coast upbringing. For an Enneagram Personality Type 8 this is always a journey, as being pointed, direct, and fiery comes naturally. But I’m glad to generally be seen as even-tempered.
However, we all have moments. And there’s nothing that brings up the fire like Mama Bear energy. Here’s how it went down:
My kid is very outgoing and playful and sweet. He does better with small groups than large groups of strangers (which seems pretty smart to me at his age). So he’s in the shopping cart, “helping” unload the groceries onto the belt. Only slightly damaging the peaches in the process.
The cashier starts asking him questions: “Hi what’s your name?!” To which he offers nothing in response, but continues his chosen task. Somewhat bashful at being made the center of attention when clearly the work in front of us is getting this stuff onto the belt and into bags and into the car. A product of his Montessori environment I suppose. After trying a few more times to elicit the smile and response she’s looking for, she says this thing, the thing which seems so innocent but earned a sharp response from me:
Cashier: “Oh he’s SHY. You’re a shy boy, aren’t you?
Me, in an even tone, out of kid’s earshot: “Well no, he’s not. But he certainly may become shy if people keep telling him he is”.
There was no response back to that. And we continued the transaction in silence.
Now why was that comment worth getting so uncommonly direct with a stranger?
Because what we tell people about them makes an impression. If enough people tell you that you are a certain way, you can start believing it—consciously or unconsciously. And you may start acting out of that identity you’ve been given—whether it is true for you or not.
Children are even more susceptible to these messages. Sponges, undeniably. “She says I’m shy, and so did that other stranger in that large crowd … I guess I’m shy. What does shy mean? I guess something that elicits disappointment and disinterest from adults. Maybe I shouldn’t talk much or be too engaged with them if I’m disappointing. I’ll just look down at the ground and be quiet if I don’t know them”. What does that amount to? Being a shy person.
In my Shadow Work practice, I facilitate people who are looking at childhood patterns. We want to understand them, see how they’re affecting our current day reality. The painful messages from childhood always get boiled down to “you are…” or “you are not….”. And they are at the root of how we see ourselves now—and therefore, how other people experience us. A boss might think “I really want her to show up more in meetings. It seems like she’s afraid to stand up for what she thinks, but I know her perspective is really valuable”. Maybe that woman was told as a child she shouldn’t speak up—she may have been told “you are stupid” or something more innocent “you are the pretty, quiet one, not like your loud smartass brothers”. As children we become more of what we get rewarded for, and we believe the messages we are told.
So I’m not sorry for making a point with that unexpecting cashier. I want my boy to believe he is interesting, thoughtful, friendly…however that shows up specifically for him as he gets older. Whether introverted or extroverted. It’s my job to reflect back to him what I see in him, to adore him, to correct him when needed, to protect him. And we all are invited to reflect back to each other the best of what we see in each other, and also—with people we have trust established with—to give insights on the parts that need healing, and refining. We each have labeled ourselves already enough with our self judgements. We don’t need strangers or loved ones piling on more labels.
Here are a few takeaways from what I’ve experienced with other people’s kids and with my own:
Tips for interacting with other people’s young children
Be open and interested in them as people:
These toddlers are so stinkin’ cute. Seriously just hilarious. Don’t objectify them by commenting on their cuteness or patting their head—though it’s tempting. They are already unique beings, so be genuinely curious about them.
Don’t expect a response:
I used to be hurt when little kids didn’t like me—I thought it meant I wasn’t fun or likeable enough. Or I remember thinking “how rude, they didn’t even say ‘hi’ back to me!” It’s a big mistake to need a response from a kid for your own happiness. They are not obligated to say anything to you. They may have just learned how to speak six months ago. Telling you their age or name might just not matter to them yet. Don’t let it be awkward; don’t take it personally. They’re just weird little people that don’t know our social expectations yet.
Go for action over words:
Do stuff with them. The quickest way to my kid’s heart is by building a train track or blowing bubbles with him. Or getting him to help with a task. Actions speak so much louder than words.
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I am a coach, facilitator and program director in Denver, Colorado. I bring a high-performance mindset from 18 years leading in global corporations, startups, non-profits and Higher Ed. I’ve also honed skills in emotional intelligence and practical spirituality through training with ICF, Shadow Work®, Insights Discovery and motherhood. If you’re ready to do powerful inner work, and also get tangible results in your external environment, please follow my blog and reach out to talk about coaching!