In order for a child to shine in social settings, he must first be aware of his own emotions, must be able to self-regulate, must be able to motivate himself, and feel empathy for others. Having mastered these skills, the child can grow up to be an adult who is good in social settings. He will be able to lead groups of people, negotiate solutions for difficult situations, get along in relationships with others and will be able to “read” people and situations in order to act appropriately.
What does this look like on a 2-year old, and can a young child be taught social graces? The minute lessons we teach our little tots all accumulate to teach the adolescent how to handle himself with others which will help him turn into an adult who is prepared to shine in relationships at home, at work, and socially.
Examples of little social lessons:
- Say thank you when someone does something for you, even family members
- Look others in the eyes and listen
- Greet people when you enter a room
- Let another person go before you through the door
- Share what you have with someone who is by you
- When visiting, wait until you are offered something rather than asking
- Say please when you want something
- Take the initiative to talk to someone new
- Continue a conversation someone begins rather than ignoring or answering with one word
- Pass the food at the table, making sure everyone has food
- Say “excuse me” when walking between two people or leaving the table
- Observe another person receiving something without becoming upset or jealous
- Be careful with things belonging to others
- Not interrupt when someone else is talking
- Be polite when someone says something
- Show interest in what others think, ask for their opinion
- Respect the personal “space” of others
- Show sympathy when someone gets hurt
- Take turns; wait my turn
- Show respect for the other person, avoiding put downs at all costs
- Express understanding of the strong emotions of others
When this skill is important:
Several years ago I worked primarily with students who were failing in school. I learned early on that when parents came in to speak with me, they were nearly always upset and defensive. I could feel their seething frustration and defensiveness before a word was even spoken. I learned that the quickest way to get us all on the same page working towards a solution was to first diffuse their overwrought emotions by sharing something their child was super good at, and to get them at ease and smiling. Once they were relaxed, it was easier to share with them areas we were working on together. It helped me with difficult interviews to not think of my own feelings, but to enter into those of the parents. It made sense that parents of failing children might have been confronted too many times with their child’s failure and had not been able to find a way to help them. To have me not criticize but rather complement their child and then express the specific things I was doing to help bring improvement was a relief to them. I also found the more positive and optimistic I was, the more hopeful and believing they became.
The more skilled a child is at stopping to read the mood and tone of others, the more successful he will be at being accepted by his peers. Because children can be cruel in how they treat each other, if your child will first observe the other kids in the group he will be able to see what they are playing and will be able to join them without disrupting their play. This makes being accepted into the group easier. The child who just blunders into the group talking loudly and picking up toys will miss out on what is going on and will likely spark the irritation of the other children.
Of course the most effective way to teach social skills is by modeling them day in and day out. One of the tragedies in homes lies in the negative modeling parents do as they treat each other with disrespect and contempt, using harsh words, criticism, belittling, and yet displaying impeccable manners with strangers. We assume we can compartmentalize how we treat people; our partner one way, and our friends and our children another way, but the fact is, words don’t teach, actions do. As hard as it may be, our attitude as parents needs to be, “I am going to speak with my spouse exactly the way I want my child to speak with his spouse when he grows up.”
For a brief time I taught reading to 6th – 8th grade classes in a middle school. Many of the children in this school had been either expelled from public school or had their parents take them out for varying reasons. The hallways in this school were chaotic and loud. Kids shoved each other, ignored tardy bells, shouted, bumped into teachers who were foolish enough to try and pass through the halls between classes. Lack of work ethic was the norm, in fact, lack of emotional intelligence was the norm. Out of the roughly 140 students I taught on a daily basis, I can recall only about 5 who were highly functioning children. By this I mean who had manners, listened and responded to teachers, and who did their work.
I developed a severe case of TMJ during my time in this school because of finding myself in a completely impossible situation. I believe with all my heart that had the leadership understood that what the student body needed more than anything was a crash course in emotional intelligence, I would have had a far different experience. But the adults in charge of the school coddled the students. There were no expectations in place. The students did exactly as they pleased. If a student became so unruly as to have to be removed from class, his consequences were that he was brought to a special room monitored by a very sweet lady who gave him personal attention and did not require much in the way of work.
One day my class was reading Holes and I attempted to lead a discussion on the chapter where one of the boys in the camp was teaching another boy how to read. I asked the class– if they met a kid who never had learned to read, what would they do? Would they help him? I was shocked to hear their reactions. Out of the whole class, only one boy said he would take the time to teach another child to read. I must have appeared comical to the students as my eyes bugged and my eyebrows rose in surprise. The things students said were “Why should I take my free time to do anything for someone else?” or “What’s in it for me?” “It is not my problem if the other kid can’t read.”
It was distressing to me more than I can express to be involved in a school where the concentration of truly emotionally illiterate students was so very high. It was especially distressing to be chastened by the administration if I attempted to hold a student accountable for anything. For trying to stop a boy from walking out of class whenever he wanted to. That sort of thing.
That experience was several years ago. Frequently I have wondered what happened to those students. How is life going for them now? How are they negotiating “real life” where adults they rub shoulders with are not their indulgent parents and teachers?
So how can we prevent this heartbreaking scenario? Start when our children are very young, understanding the value of emotional intelligence and having crystal clear goals for them. If we keep in mind that indulgence is only going to hurt the child later in life, which learning emotional skills will guide and protect him we will choose far better. Understanding that emotional skills the little tot learned will become his life blood when he is an adult.