As long as she has been able to string two words together, my daughter has had a gift for small talk.
“I Anya,” my three-year-old would say to some random stranger in Target. “My Mimi. My mommy,” she’d continue, pointing to my mother and me. “My baby,” she’d say, pointing to my pregnant belly. She would then ask the other person’s name, and the names of their children, and go on to discuss their clothes, accessories, kids, and the contents of both our carts until her new friend excused him/herself.
All the while, I wished desperately for the floor to swallow me up. I suck at small talk. And talking to strangers. Talking in general is not my strong suit. I prefer to type.
Anya was never very social in her play, but she did crave child companionship from a young age — that’s part of the reason why she has a baby brother in the first place. She’d love for me to have another baby; she and her brother may butt heads, but they’re also very close. And she loves to talk with kids of all ages, whenever, wherever.
“I’m Anya,” she’ll say to some kid at the park, in the toy section of a store, attending whatever kid function we’re at that day. “Want to be my friend?”
She has a harder time pulling off the small talk with kids, who have been indoctrinated with stranger-danger from the time they were in diapers. Some are open and friendly; most, put off by her gregarious nature and her lingering speech issues, are more reticent, and a handful are even cruel. I was relieved to find that her classmates warmed to her; every encounter with a school mate has the two children hugging like they’ve not seen each other in years, even if they’ve only been parted for 30 minutes or so. She also bonded easily and naturally with the girls in her Girl Scout troop, and those on her softball team.
She lets the rebuffs roll off her back; she knows she is loved and has friends. I’m the one who lies awake at night ruminating over them. “She was just trying to be nice to you,” I think. “Why do you have to be so mean to someone so sweet?”
Her baby brother is now three, and is starting to make more overt attempts at socialization. He is constantly handing me this toy or that and inviting me into collaborative play. (Anya never did this, so it’s a new experience for both Kai and I.) And the other day at softball, I watched him approach a group of older girls (older than Anya, even; probably around 8) and try to strike up a conversation.
“I’m sorry,” one of them said to me, a cute little red-haired girl who appeared to be Kai’s favorite. “I don’t speak baby.”
Kai was wounded, I could tell — he’s a big boy, not a baby — but he kept trying. To no avail; not many 8-year-olds are interested in 3-year-olds. But he continued to try to join their conversation until we left.
My children seem so brazen to me. Did I ever have this confidence? The me I remember would have crumpled at the first insult, intended or actual, and slunk away. But perhaps I was more dogged at 3, at 6. Before the rebuffs and insults piled up.
At the mention of a park (preferably not deserted, which is how I remember preferring them — and continue to prefer them), a party, some other kid-friendly activity, they light up. It’s not the location or the activity that excites them — it’s the kids. They love nothing more than to play with other kids. And every time, my heart freezes. Will they be treated kindly? Accepted? Or ridiculed and excluded? How do I guard my heart against the latter, when I still bear the wounds inflicted by my own childhood?
Then again, the other night Kai and I left without even approaching the baseball field where he was to play t-ball, and I think part of it was because he was terrified of all the people there. I saw myself in those tear-filled eyes — at 3, at 23, at 43. And no matter how much I begged him to just try it, reminded him of how much he’d been looking forward to t-ball, and assured him that I would be right there with him the whole time, he would not budge.
Does this ever get easier? For any of us?