My freshman college roommate was the first of my friends to have children, several years after we graduated. She didn't live nearby, and by the time I visited her, she already had an infant and a toddler. I didn't know anything about babies then, and I expected that the kids wouldn't want anything to do with me, a complete stranger. I was happily surprised when the baby gurgled and reached out her arms to me, and the toddler wanted to chat and show me her toys. I hoped that when I had children, they would be as charming and comfortable with people as my friend's were.
Well, when my son was born, he was definitely a mommy's boy. I carried him almost all the time, every day. And when he started walking, he would often hurl himself at me and hold on tight to my legs. But somehow, though he preferred me to all others, he didn't suffer from separation anxiety, and seemed to be happy with whoever picked him up and played with him. His regular babysitter and his grandmother were acceptable substitutes for me, so long as it wasn't too often. Even more interesting, though, he was happy to spend a little time with complete strangers, too. For instance, if I had to leave him with someone for a few minutes to run to the bathroom or check that the parking meter still had money in it, he was unfazed.
I'm not sure what to attribute that to. My husband and I are both talkers, and we're happy to chat up strangers we meet in town, on the train, or even on the street. Maybe our son picked up on the fact that we don't have a lot of defenses up when it comes to other people. More likely, it's just something he was born with.
I certainly have very happy, social friends whose toddlers get upset when mommy leaves, even for a little while. In these cases, my friends tell me there are a few ways to make the separation easier. First, sometimes they leave an object that reminds their child of them -- like a photo or a scarf -- to reassure their children that they'll be back soon. Also, they take care to spend time together with new babysitters or caretakers so their toddlers can see that mommy likes this new person, and that they can all play together. Then, once their children are engrossed in some kind of fun activity with the babysitter or even grandma, it's a bit easier to leave. Even though their toddlers may cry for a minute or yell, "I want Mommy," they're generally perfectly happy within minutes. (And by age two-and-a-half or three, most kids outgrow whatever separation anxiety they had.)
There was one down-side to my son's happy sociability. When he was about three, I thought it was probably time for him to learn that you can't trust absolutely everyone. "What would you do," I asked him, "if you were in the library, and you didn't see me, and someone you didn't know came up to you and said they wanted to show you a new puppy in their car outside. Would you go with them?"
"Well," he said, thinking a bit. "I think I would go, and then if I didn't like it, I would just leave."
I gulped. It was time for a serious talk about how even though most people are nice, you should never go anywhere with someone you don't know. Fortunately, my son seemed to absorb this information without being traumatized. He's still a happy people person. Just a very slightly more wary one, which is just the way I like it.
Beth Weinhouse is an award-winning journalist who specializes in writing about parenting issues and women's health. She's been an editor at Ladies' Home Journal and Parenting magazines, and her work has appeared in dozens of consumer magazines and websites.
Our parenting advice is given as suggestions only. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider, and urge you to contact them immediately if your question is urgent or about a medical condition.