There’s nothing I dread more than a trip out in public with my toddler.

Not because of the inevitable antics that result from trying to keep a tiny human whose frontal lobe hasn’t fully developed from destroying the place.

Not because any task, no matter how mundane, takes double the amount of time to accomplish.

And not because my child always chooses to have his most dramatic meltdowns anytime we’re under intense public scrutiny.

No, by far the worst part of our excursions out into polite society is when we are approached by a well-meaning stranger who wants to “ooh” and “ahh” over my son and expects a big cheeky smile in return.

With his adorable chubby face and bright blue eyes, he is a total babe magnet.

There’s just one problem: he doesn’t want to smile.

At his current age, he’s got a serious case of “Stranger Danger,” and instead of a cute, toothy grin, he is much more apt to return a stony, blank stare.

No amount of encouragement will budge him. No amount of goading or bribery or cajoling. You can play peek-a-boo all you want. Make funny faces. You can’t crack that poker face.

But you know what? It’s freakin’ OK.

I promise you he is a happy, well-adjusted, totally normal child. He just takes a little bit to process his surroundings and assess people he doesn’t know. Which, last time I checked, isn’t such a bad thing.

How would you like it if some random person came up to you in the middle of a store and told you to smile? Creepy, right?

Not to mention the added perk that the odds of him getting kidnapped are also in my favor—he’s much less likely to go running into the arms of a stranger if he has a healthy dose of skepticism.

To be perfectly honest, I used to be extremely self-conscious about it. I would constantly apologize and make excuses for him. “Oh, he’s just in this phase right now where it takes him awhile to warm up to people!” I would give him a little prod—“J, why don’t you give the nice lady a smile?”

But here’s the thing—they weren’t excuses for him. They were excuses for me. As if I were somehow failing by not teaching my child to return a common gesture of civility. As if it were a reflection on my poor parenting skills and inability to properly socialize my child.

But then I thought long and hard. And I decided to stop giving a hoot what people think about my kid’s socialization skills.

Now, before anyone jumps on me about how I’m teaching my child to be a rude brat who won’t respect his elders, please don’t interpret this as a giant middle finger to politeness or common courtesy. I certainly expect my son to mind his manners, and phrases like “please” and “thank you” will be commonplace in my household. Or else.

But I don’t need to make excuses for my own genuine emotions and I don’t need to make excuses for his. The last thing I ever want to do is shame him into pretending he feels something he doesn’t. His feelings should never be discredited or dismissed. Frankly, the repercussions of me telling him to “Smile!” could last far beyond his toddler years. Sometimes I think about my son, the teenager, and the difficult situations he might find himself in a decade from now. I certainly hope that if he feels uncomfortable or endangered, he won’t just “smile” and go along with it. I hope he’ll have the guts to stand up for what he believes in and act according to the dictates of his own conscience.

So sure, they say a frown requires a lot more muscles than a smile.

I guess my son will have a nice, strong face.

And when he does happen to turn that frown upside down, you’ll know he really means it.

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Emily Solberg

Emily Solberg is a soldier, military spouse, mom of two, and fierce advocate of women supporting women. The goal of her writing is to help others feel less alone in their parenting journeys, and she isn’t afraid to share the hard parts of her own. You can find more from her over on Facebook and Instagram at Shower Arguments with Emily Solberg.

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