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Children Running Towards Mother

We want our children to have good manners, not only to say, "please" and "thank you," but to learn social graces as well, such as the ability to say, "hello," when greeted by another person-relatives, teachers, our next-door neighbors. But we also tell our kids not to talk to strangers. So where does that leave us with the supermarket cashier, the bank teller and the mailman? What about the nice old man walking his dog? Is it ever okay to say hello to a stranger?

My son was extremely shy. If someone unfamiliar spoke to him, he'd turn around and bury his face in my legs. I might have had something to do with this, as I'd warned him that every stranger was a potential kidnapper. But I told my daughter the same thing, and she would walk up to a group of people and introduce herself. (To my dismay, she still sits down on a Boston subway and strikes up a conversation with the person next to her.) My son remained shy as a teenager, but today he's a successful businessman, and talks comfortably with all kinds of people.

Social worker and mother, Rose Pietal, LICSW (Licensed Independent Certified Social Worker) offers the following: "This is definitely a tricky topic. In my experience, I've found that kids learn through doing. We all want our children to be kind and respectful to others. However, I also don't want my own children to feel like they are obligated to engage in niceties with people with whom they aren't familiar. This can be confusing to them and muddle any boundaries I have set regarding talking to strangers."

She continues: "With that said, puppets, stuffed animals and even art can serve as a forum for children to learn and express themselves. This way they can engage in role-play and the parent or caregiver can get an idea of their comfort level with strangers and how likely they may be to engage with them on their own free will. This should also help them identify appropriate ways to reciprocate a hello to someone they aren't familiar with. Asking children to identify people that are in their circle of safety is also important. This could include family, caregivers, teachers or neighbors. Through role-play with a doll house or puppets you can engage the child in various scenarios and model appropriate behavior."

As I learned with my own children, social graces will come in time, but the bottom line? Safety comes first.

What do you teach your children about talking to strangers?

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SJ Wilson has been writing novels for many years, including the recently published The Soul of Fenway. She loves spending time with her family, especially at the beach. Her hobbies include genealogy, photography, American history, and baseball.