Watching your kids talk to strangers can be a gift

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I love it when my kids talk to strangers.

I took them to get haircuts the other morning at a hipster barber shop in my neighborhood. The kind of place where they hand patrons a beer when they plop down in a chair (adult patrons, of course). The kind of place where tattoos cover more skin than clothing does.

The kind of place, that is, where you don't hover next to the employees as they cut your kids' hair, making idle small talk about soccer practice.

So I sat on a nearby couch, flipping through a magazine and listening to my daughter, 8, chat up her stylist. She opened with a confession.

"I used to chew my hair."

"Really?" the woman replied. "Why did you do that?"

"I don't know! I just did it. My brother chews his shirts."

They went on like this for 20 minutes — my daughter tossing out benign family secrets and details about our upcoming trip to Albuquerque, N.M.; the stylist replying politely, if a little indifferently.

That evening we boarded a plane for the aforementioned trip. For the second leg, Minneapolis to Albuquerque, my daughter shared a row with a stranger. I sat across the aisle.

"Can we put the window shade up?" she asked. "I like to see the lights when we land."

The woman obliged.

"I'm from Chicago," she continued. "We have taller buildings than Albuquerque. But they put lights on short buildings too."

The woman said something I couldn't make out. My daughter kept talking — about going to visit her stepdad's family, about her cousin who's leaving for college soon, about how she brought a book for the plane, but she hasn't really felt like reading it.

I hung on every word.

It's so easy to forget your kids take up their very own space, wholly apart from you. When they're little, like mine, you imagine them growing up some day and leaving you, and you hope they leave for something better. You hope they seek justice and find soul mates and improve the world.

But that's all later. Right now, you think, they're yours.

And they are. But they also belong to the world. Watching them interact pleasantly, cordially, with strangers without your prodding (tell the nice woman how old you are, sweetheart) is a reality check: They already exist apart from you.

It's also exhilarating, because it feels like a glimpse at the future them, the ones who grew up and left you. And, hey, it looks like they just might have the stuff to seek justice and find soul mates and improve the world.

I called Richard Greenberg, author of the newly released "Raising Children That Other People Like to Be Around" (New Generation Publishing), to tell him about my tiny victory.

My daughter talks to strangers, I told him. She engages them and tells stories. She's fun. This feels, to me, huge.

"There's no pleasure like watching your children out in the open, out in the world," he told me.

He and his wife take great joy in watching their three sons and daughter navigate adulthood, he said.

"People like to be around them," he said. "Because the manners they need as adults are the same manners you teach them in the sandbox."

They had four rules for their kids. I'm sure they had more than four, but these were the non-negotiables: Be truthful. Be respectful. Be generous. Be kind.

"I always emphasized that taking care of themselves is a very important part of their lives," Greenberg says. "But I reminded them that we live in a society full of people who are just as important as we are, people who have lots of other priorities."

I love that. And I love watching my daughter find those people — the tattooed hair stylist, the friendly seatmate in her 40s — and start to share her story. She gets it, I think, that she's part of something huge.

She belongs to me, sure. But she also belongs to the world. And it's time they start getting to know each other.

hstevens@tribune.com

Twitter @heidistevens13

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