When children’s book author Linda Davick visits schools, she likes to introduce herself to the kids. Some stare back blankly. A few grab her extended hand…and stare at her shoes. Or up at the ceiling. “Most kids think I want to hold hands,” she told me. “They lay their hand in mine and leave it there. Some even lay both their hands there.”
Nine out of 10 kids, she guesses, have no idea how to respond. “After I tell them my name, maybe one in 30 will tell me their name,” she added.
So here’s the big question: Does your child—whether a preschooler or teen—know the right way to react to an adult’s greeting?
Sadly, knowing how to say hello has become one of the lost skills of childhood. Yet this simple, increasingly uncommon courtesy marks your child as polite, sharp, likable, and respectful. And who wouldn’t want that, as opposed to a rude or clueless doofus? Worryingly, research shows that kids’ screen-based culture means they’re losing the ability to read nonverbal communications, like what to do with an extended hand. (Interacting with avatars isn’t the same.) They simply don’t know how to do it. Some psychologists say this lack of exposure feeds social anxiety: Unsure how to act in a hi-how-do-you-do situation, some kids panic.
The solution isn’t to let them off the hook because you don’t want them to feel uncomfortable. It’s to equip them with a life-changing life skill. Starting with this basic lesson:
1. No child past the stranger-anxiety phase (around 3) is too young (or too old, or too shy) to learn the meet and greet.
That’s why Davick says she wrote her newest picture book, Say Hello. Although its adorable illustrations and fun rhymes—“with a hug, with a shake, with a curtsy, with a cake”—are more how-about than how-to, they expose preschoolers and early grade-schoolers to the core idea that greetings matter.
Once a shy kid herself, Davick suggests broaching conversations with questions like these:
“Do you say hello, and if you do, how?”
“Is saying hello hard? If so, what makes it hard?”
“How do you feel after someone’s said hello to you?”
This first step—learning that greetings matter—is also one that’s eluded many older kids, who are now old enough to know better. But you can’t push without prep. So next comes laying the groundwork:
2. Make sure they see you say hello.
Admittedly it’s hard, in our drive-thru, self-check-out-lane world, for kids to see us making small talk with the butcher, baker, or dry cleaner. But when you mutter to the Target clerk or fail to make eye contact with the UPS guy, let’s just say it’s being duly noted. Your kid thinks that people aren’t worth her effort, either.
So smile and say hey yourself.
Doing so gives you the opportunity to casually point out the basics:
When someone says hello, we say hello back.
No pressure to come up with anything original. “Hi, I’m Jake” or “Hi, how are you/I’m fine, thanks” is sufficient.
It’s not dorky. It’s what civilized people do.
It won’t kill you. And it feels nice—for you and the person you’re talking to.
3. Show the basic handshake.
Columnist Bruce Feiler condensed the drill to three learn-worthy steps for any kid: “Firm grip, squeeze, look me in the eye.” A further breakdown:
Get into position. Face the person. Show a young child how his toes should point toward the person. Bonus points: Stand up!
Reach out and touch. Extend the right hand, or grab one that’s extended to you first. The connection should be firm enough to be noticed, hitting a sweet spot between limp noodle and bone-crusher.
Point out to an older child that a handshake is often a first impression. Prospective employers and business associates judge people by how confidently they shake. That’s lame, they might tell you. That’s life, you can say back.
Squeeze. Explain that this is like body language for “I’m paying attention to YOU.”
Make eye contact. As author Davick learned in her school visits, even kids willing to lend a hand often flub up here. One good trick to lessen anxiety: Teach your child to look for the color of the person’s eyes.
Oh yeah, one more thing: Practice! The more kids do it, the easier it comes. Make it a game. Pretend to be different people.
4. Don’t force, but do applaud effort.
Not literal applause. A nod or encouraging smile will do. Or maybe later you get a chance to point out, “You made Aunt Jane feel very nice.” Or, “Thanks for being welcoming to the new neighbor.”
Hissing or haranguing in front of others will backfire. Forcing a kid to make nice shuts down a reserved child and makes more outgoing types feel mortified and resentful. Better: Let it go in public but circle back later. Say something like: “I notice you didn’t respond to Mr. Jones’s handshake. Is there something about it that’s hard for you or you’re not sure about? Here, let’s practice so it’s easier next time.”
5. Give gentle reminders.
At first, you’ll need to prime the pump. Before a party or event, try saying something like, “People are going to say hi. Remember to say hi back.” Boost confidence, especially with younger kids, by doing a quick role-play rehearsal.
Knowing how to say hello is such a small thing but can stand out in big ways. At a recent sweet-16 birthday party, teen after teen came to the door and had to pass through a roomful of adults before getting to the kids (and the cake). Only one made his way to every parent he didn’t know to shake hands and introduce himself.
We were all nearly dumbstruck by the rarity. And more than a little impressed.
What you’ll get with a little effort: that kid. The one the other parents talk about later, with admiration. The one who gets the teacher recommendation or the job. The one everybody likes—just because he or she makes everyone feel comfortable and good. As Linda Davick reminded me: “The heart of the matter is that simply being acknowledged is so affirming to everybody! Looking someone in the eye and smiling is such a great start to so many things.”