When Cooper was an infant, then a toddler, I was secretly worried about his willingness to interact with unfamiliar people. For the longest time, he was totally uninterested in anyone who wasn't in his nuclear little family, and he wouldn't even make eye contact with people he didn't know well.
But he was a charmer and a talker around me, R and Zachary, so I figured it might be something that would work itself out.
And ever so slowly, he has started to come out of his shell - just a little.
He's still reserved and quiet around people he's unfamiliar with, and I've never even had to bother with the whole "don't talk to strangers" routine, because I know darn good and well he will absolutely NOT ever no matter what talk to you if he doesn't a) know you and b) like you. He won't even usually answer when spoken directly to unless I tell him pointedly "Say hello, Cooper. That person is talking to you."
Not long ago he and I were standing outside somewhere, waiting - always waiting - on something, and a man with a dog walked up. The indifference Cooper shows toward many people does not extend to dogs. He loves them joyfully, gleefully, every one of them, in every doggy shape and size. He looked at me, and I could tell that he wanted me to smooth the way for him to be able to pet the dog, so I asked for him. "Could my little boy pet your dog?"
The man, who was friendly enough, smiled and said "Sure, here ya go," then yanked on the dog's chain to get him (or her, I don't really know) to sit down. "Sit!" he commanded, and when the dog didn't respond immediately, he smacked him on the rump, then the nose. "SIT!" he said again.
Cooper looked up at me, totally appalled. He pulled on my hand urgently until I leaned down, and then he whispered "Him HIT that doggy, Mama. That's not NICE."
I hemmed and hawed and stuttered around for a minute, trying to think of the right thing to say and/or do. On one hand, it wasn't really any of our business how this man got his dog to sit, but on the other I have spent way too many hours teaching my boys kindness and gentleness and how we NEVER, EVER hit to let this one little moment undo all that work.
It was a decision Cooper took, quite firmly, from my hands.
Much to my surprise, he pulled away from me and walked right up to the man and the now-sitting dog. He looked the man directly in the eyes. "We don't HIT!" he said, his whole little body shaking with rage at the injustice of it, and possibly with fear at the thought of confronting this strange man. "Hitting is not TIND (kind). We NEVER, EVER, EVER hit. OTAY?"
His message delivered, he reached out and gently, so, so gently began petting the dog, as he had been told he could.
As soon as I was able to make a getaway, I scooped Cooper up, mumbling incoherently to the man "Thanks for letting him pet your dog we have to go stand over there now because I need to be as far away from you as possible."
As we were walking away, Cooper looked back over my shoulder toward the dog owner and held up a finger to reiterate his point. "Member," he said. "We NEVER, EVER hit, you got it?"
After I got some time and distance between us and the hitting dog owner, and got over my own shock at the (imagined) horror of a confrontation with a stranger, I started to get some perspective on the whole incident. It made me realize that my boy is brave and strong and has a good, good heart, and that I don't need to worry at all that he's slow to warm up to people. I realized, too, that it makes me so proud that he's willing to stand up for what he believes to be right and true.
I know now that he will speak when it matters.
Even if his voice shakes when he does it.