COLUMN: Smile and wave – like a baby

We spend too much time looking at screens and not enough time acknowledging real people.

My daughter Elise is at a stage where she likes to wave.

She has a number of different waves: the vigorous arm-and-hand flap, the delicate Queen’s wave, and the more tentative semi-raised arm wave with opening and closing fingers.

She rewards anyone who waves back with a wide toothy grin or laugh, squinting her eyes and crinkling her nose to give them the full impact of her joy.

But when we’re at a coffee shop or strolling down the street, I notice she is often waving at someone whose head is down while they tap at their phone as they sit or walk.

It would be rather self-absorbed of me to believe everyone wants to wave to a one-year-old, but it has made me think about how much time we spend looking at screens and how little we smile at strangers.

Once, I was in line to buy a toy instrument and a small boy behind me tried to get his mom’s attention. “Look mom, a xylophone! A xylophone mom, look! Mom! Mom! Look mom,” and still, the mom continued to swipe at her phone. I smiled sympathetically his way as he resorted to tugging on her shirt.

Of course, I’m guilty of responding to texts in Elise’s presence, and she definitely voices her displeasure. Right now, it’s because she wants what I have (the phone), but as she gets older it will likely be because my attention is elsewhere.

While I can’t limit the screen time of others, I can certainly limit my own. So when Elise is awake, I’m trying not to jump on command at the sound of my phone buzzing with a new message. It’s been harder than I thought to clamp down on the instinct to respond immediately.

I’m also trying to take a cue from my daughter and say hello to strangers as I pass them on our walks, or at least smile in their direction.

I recently read in The Huffington Post that researchers at Purdue University in Indiana found that people surveyed after being ignored by a passing stranger felt more socially disconnected than those who were acknowledged with a smile or nod.

For me, it’s been a bit awkward. You know the moment as two strangers are about to cross paths: will your fellow pedestrian make eye contact, or not? I will make eye contact, I’ve resolved.

Still, sometimes my “hi” is so quiet I wonder if I was heard, and the smile feels forced. Easier is waving and smiling at the drivers who stop for us at crosswalks, not even knowing if eye contact was made through the glare on the windshield.

When I do give out a confident, genuine smile though, it often feels like people are relieved, like I’ve given them permission to smile back. If they are also walking with a little one, that “hi” sometimes opens the door to exchanging a few pleasantries about our kids.

One day, we will surely caution Elise to be wary of strangers. But by that time I hope I will have made a habit of greeting passers-by, so as she gets older the waves and carefree smiles will continue.

And one day she’ll get a phone of her own, but hopefully she will put it away long enough to notice the smiles and waves of others, particularly happy little babies.

Kristine Salzmann is a Black Press reporter on maternity leave and mom to 13-month-old baby girl Elise. She writes monthly for The Leader on parenting issues.

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