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Claire McCarthy, M.D. Headshot

Don't Stop Your Child From Being Friendly

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My 6-year-old son Liam is so friendly that it's a problem sometimes.

It’s a problem because once he has started talking he doesn’t stop. Well-meaning people have been stuck talking to him for much longer than they intended. They ask an innocuous question (like “How are you?”) or answer his innocuous question (like “What’s that?”) and there we all are, while Liam talks. And talks.

But that's the only problem I see with it. I don't worry about it the way other people often seem to worry about their child's friendliness. "She's too friendly," parents say to me in clinic. The implicit concern is that friendly children are more at risk of being kidnapped or otherwise preyed upon -- because they are more likely to chat up or trust people, and some people are dangerous.

So here's what I think. It's really important to teach kids to be safe -- to make sure that they never go anywhere with anyone without telling you, for example, and always get away and tell someone if a grownup does something that makes them uncomfortable. But please, please, don't squelch their friendliness.

There's a famous Bible story about Jesus and the loaves and the fish. He is preaching to thousands of people, and his disciples realize that the people need to eat -- but they have no food for them. Jesus starts asking where they can buy food. A little boy steps forward and says: I've got five loaves and two fishes.

Give them to the people, Jesus says to the disciples, who look at him like he's gone off the deep end. Really? Five loaves and two fish for thousands of people? Are you out of your mind? Do it, Jesus says. And at the end, the leftovers filled twelve baskets. Growing up, I always heard the story told as an example of Jesus' miracles: He multiplied the loaves and fishes and made enough for everyone.

My dear, dear friend Jim Field, a priest, had a different take on this story. In Jesus' day, he said, it would have been unheard of for people to go hear someone talk without taking food with them. But as they looked around at those thousands of people, they tucked that food up their sleeves. I'm not sharing with this crowd, they said to themselves.

And then a little boy shared his food. And in that moment, as he gave what he had, the others took out their food. Here's what Jim said in his sermon about this story:

Two possibilities. First possibility: The bread and fish get mysteriously, almost magically multiplied in the basket. Miracle. Second possibility: Greedy selfish hearts get changed. People start bringing their hidden lunches into the light of day, but before they feed themselves, they feed their neighbors. Everybody gives. No one is left out.

Kindness begets kindness. Friendliness begets friendliness.

I see this with Liam all the time. As he talks to the person next to us in line, the businessman on the train, the old lady in church, the little girl in the sandbox or the cashier at the store, something happens. They don't really mean to start talking with him, but he's so earnest and engaging that they can't help themselves. And soon they are smiling and it's as if something has lifted, something is different in a way that we all feel but can't quite describe. It's quietly wonderful.

So teach your child to be safe, but don't stop them from being friendly. Let them be the change we want to see in the world. Be it with them.