Smile at a child today, please!

As I finished my walk this morning, the final leg required me to walk over a narrow covered foot bridge that spans across a local creek. The custom for physical distancing at this bridge has been a delicate dance requiring people on foot and on bikes or roller blades to wait for someone to get all the way across and then the next person would be able to go. At times, this has meant that you had to wait your turn and for the most part people on the walking path were patient and respectful. Especially in the early part of this pandemic.

But times have changed and human behaviour is shifting. More often than not these days, people seem to avoid eye contact and at times it appears they shrink into themselves not offering a hello or a smile.

This avoidant behaviour has become more prevalent as the pandemic progresses and at times, facial expressions on people crossing that bridge signal annoyance or agitation. As our community moves towards re-opening, it feels like we are participating in a three legged race. Some of us are still practicing physical distancing as we did when we first began to shelter in place and others seem to have shrugged off any concern about risk and appear visibly annoyed with those that do.

Today while out on my daily walk, I encountered a young family. A mother steering a large baby stroller and a small boy riding a tiny two wheeler could be seen at the other end of the bridge. I had arrived before them and had already begun walking so I was about half way across the bridge when the boy on his tiny bike starting riding. His mother told him to stop and he quickly moved back when she asked him to and his face clearly communicated that he was upset. As I grew closer to where they were, I could see that his upset face was more fearful than angry and I wondered about that.

When I came to the end of the bridge, I smiled at this boy and thanked him for waiting for me to get across. He looked up at me with a mixture of astonishment and amazement on his little face, clearly surprised. He said loudly to his mother, “that lady smiled at me mommy and she said thank you!”. This young mother briefly looked down at him and then up at me as I passed. Her silent thanks seemed odd to me at first, but then I started to consider what some aspects of this pandemic experience must be like viewed through the eyes of a child.

I know that I am sensitive to the non verbal facial expressions of those I encounter on my daily walks, so what must that be like for a child? As this period of social and physical distancing has progressed, those expressions have shifted. Shifting from smiles and waves and saying hello. To gazes cast downward, pointed looks of annoyance, and at times, obvious frustration. How must young children interpret this strange new world where at times blatant disrespect and lack of common courtesy can be seen in everyday interactions.

How frightening this all must be. So if you have a chance today, smile at a child. And for that matter, smile at others, whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Stay safe and healthy!

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