A trip to the fabric store probably wasn't a dream outing for my son, Tanner, age 8. And now, to make matters worse, the clerk was trying to be friendly, asking him about his interests and schoolwork. Tanner met every question with horrified glances my way. I answered for him rather than endure the uncomfortable silences.
On the ride home, I reflected on the incident. Was this a case of shyness? No. I'd seen Tanner enter a playground and make new friends within minutes. When addressed by an adult outside of his family, though, he often silently stared, unable to respond.
Like many parents, my husband, Zac, and I had preached the motto Never talk to strangers! Could it be that to our kids those "strangers" might include church members and neighbors? Were they afraid to ask a school staff member for help? Would they be too scared to tell an adult if they were lost?
I realized that if my five children, ages 1 to 8, were to become outgoing and independent, I was going to have to reshape our stranger policy. I decided to launch Operation Talk to Strangers.
I made paper passports and gave them to my three eldest: Tanner, his twin sister, Ashlyn, and Ian, age 5. The challenge was for them to converse with eight different adults (and simple yes or no answers didn't count!). After each chat, the passport would be stamped. When each of them had seven stamps, we'd go to a restaurant, and the kids would order their own dinners, thus earning their final stamp.
Tantalized by the prospect of a rare meal out, my children agreed to the experiment. I reviewed some basic safety rules (see tips, above right), then, to ease them into this new territory, I told them they could earn the first two stamps by talking with relatives. Ian took up the challenge by asking his grandma, "What do you do at work?" which led to an animated discussion. My mom was pleasantly surprised.
Then it was time to venture into the wider world. Ashlyn, for example, talked with the school librarian. Eventually she became brave enough, when visiting her dad's workplace, to ask one of his coworkers if she could help in any way.
After visiting a new house of worship in our area, Tanner told our hosts a few things he liked about the building. And each child earned a stamp by properly answering the phone and taking a message from the caller.
Finally, with seven stamps each, we boarded the van and headed to a favorite restaurant. Did Operation Talk to Strangers turn my kids into social butterflies? Not exactly. But it did teach them that most grown-ups aren't scary monsters. In fact, as Tanner found out when he asked the waitress for a dessert menu, sometimes adults can be downright helpful!
Be sure to set guidelines about when it's safe to talk to unknown adults (for example, when a parent or caregiver is present and gives permission). Point out trustworthy adults in public settings, such as police, firefighters, and store staff.
Right: Lori and her family get chatty in their hometown of Blackfoot, Idaho.
Originally published in the February 2013 issue of FamilyFun magazine