Good social skills allow kids to enjoy better peer relationships. But the benefits of robust social skills reach far beyond social acceptance.
Social skills are a set of skills that need ongoing refinement as your kids get older. They aren’t something your child either has or doesn’t have. These are skills that can be learned and strengthened with effort and practice.
Look for teachable moments where you can help your kids do better. Some social skills are quite complicated—like understanding it’s important to be assertive when a friend is being bullied or understanding staying silent when you don’t agree with a call from the umpire.
Social skills give kids a wide range of benefits. They are linked to greater success in school and better relationships with peers.
• Better educational and career outcomes: Researchers from Penn State and Duke University found that children who were better at sharing, listening, cooperating, and following the rules at age five were more likely to go to college. They also were more likely to be employed full-time by age 25.
• Better success in life: Good social skills also can help kids have a brighter future. According to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health, a child’s social and emotional skills in kindergarten might be the biggest predictor of success in adulthood.
• Stronger friendships: Kids who have strong social skills and can get along well with peers are likely to make friends more easily. In fact, a study published in the International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences indicates that childhood friendships are good for kids’ mental health. Friendships also give children the opportunity to practice more advanced social skills, like problem-solving and conflict resolution.
So what are the potential consequences of poor social skills? Children who lacked social and emotional skills were more likely to have:
• Dependence on public assistance
• Legal trouble
• Substance abuse issues
• Relationship issues
Not having the social skills to interact with others also likely compounds that stress. For instance, being away from family places stress on children. When they are unable to communicate effectively with others, it only gets worse.
The good news is that social skills can be taught. It’s never too soon to start showing kids how to get along with others. And it’s never too late to sharpen their skills either. Start with the most basic social skills first and keep sharpening your child’s skills over time. Researchers have found that children experienced a decrease in cortisol, a hormone released during stressful situations, once they learned new social skills.
A willingness to share a snack or share a toy can go a long way to helping kids make and keep friends. According to a study published in Psychological Science, children as young as age two may show a desire to share with others—but usually only when their resources are abundant. However, children between the ages of three and six are often selfish when it comes to sharing resources that come at a cost. Kids might be reluctant to share half of their cookie with a friend because it means they’ll have less to enjoy. Those same children might readily share a toy that they’re no longer interested in playing with.
By age seven or eight, kids become more concerned with fairness and are more willing to share. Kids who feel good about themselves are often more likely to share and sharing helps them feel good about themselves. Teaching kids to share may help boost their self-esteem.
How to Practice Sharing…
While you may not want to force your child to share certain toys or with certain children, you can regularly point out sharing when you see it. Praise your child for sharing and indicate how it makes others feel. Say something like, You chose to share your snack with your sister. I be she feels happy about that. That’s a nice thing to do.”
Cooperating means working together to achieve a common goal. Kids who cooperate are respectful when others make requests. They also contribute, participate, and help out. Good cooperation skills are essential for successfully getting along within a community. Your child will need to cooperate with classmates on the playground as well as in the classroom. Cooperation is important as an adult, too. Most work environments thrive on employees’ ability to work together as a team. Cooperation is key in romantic relationships as well.
By about age three and a half, young children can begin to work with their peers on a common goal. For children, cooperation may involve anything from building a toy tower together to playing a game that requires everyone to participate. Some may take a leadership position while others will feel more comfortable following instructions. Either way, cooperation is a great opportunity for kids to learn more about themselves.
How to Practice Cooperating…
Talk about the importance of teamwork and how jobs are better when everyone pitches in. Create opportunities for the whole family to work together. Whether you assign everyone a specific job when you’re making a meal or you assign specific chores that are integral to the family, emphasize the importance of cooperation.
Listening isn’t just about staying quiet—it means really absorbing what someone else is saying. Listening also is a critical component of healthy communication. After all, much of the learning in school depends on a child’s ability to listen to what the teacher is saying.
Absorbing the material, taking notes, and thinking about what is being said becomes even more important as your child advances academically. Giving your child plenty of opportunities to practice listening can strengthen this skill. It’s essential that your child grows up knowing how to listen to the boss, a spouse or partner, and friends. This skill may be an even more difficult skill to master in the age of digital devices because so many people tend to stare at their smartphones when they’re engaged in conversation.
How to Practice Listening…
When reading a book to your children, periodically stop and ask them to tell you about what you’re reading. Pause and say, “Tell me what you remember about the story so far.”
Help them fill in any gaps they’re missing and encourage them to keep listening as you continue. Don’t allow them to interrupt others when they’re talking.
Kids who struggle to follow directions are likely to experience a variety of consequences. From having to redo their homework assignments to getting in trouble for misbehavior, not following directions can be a big problem. Whether you instruct your children to clean their rooms or you’re telling them how to improve their soccer skills, it’s important for kids to be able to take direction—and follow instructions. Before you can expect your child to get good at following directions, however, it’s essential that you become well-versed in giving directions. Some mistakes to avoid:
• Don’t give a young child more than one direction at a time. Instead of saying, “Pick up your shoes, put your books away, and wash your hands,” wait until the shoes are picked up before giving the next command.
• Don’t phrase your directions as a question. Asking, “Would you please pick up your toys now?” implies that your kids have the option to say no. Once you’ve given your children directions, ask them to repeat back what you said. Ask, “What are you supposed to do now?” and wait for them to explain what they heard you say.
• Don’t forget that mistakes are normal. It’s normal for young kids to get distracted, behave impulsively, or forget what they’re supposed to do. View each mistake as an opportunity to help them sharpen their skills.
How to Practice Following Directions…
Praise your child for following directions by saying things like, “Thank you for turning off the TV the first time I told you to.” If your children struggle to follow directions, give them opportunities to practice following simple commands. Say things like, “Please pass that book to me,” and then provide immediate praise for following directions.
Respecting Personal Space
Some kids are close talkers. Others crawl into the laps of acquaintances without any idea that the other individual feels uncomfortable. It’s important to teach kids how to respect other people’s personal space. Create household rules that encourage kids to respect other people’s personal space. “Knock on closed doors,” and “Keep your hands to yourself,” are just a few examples. If your child grabs things out of people’s hands or pushes when impatient, establish consequences. If your child climbs into the laps of acquaintances or stands too close to people while talking, use it as a teachable moment. Take your child aside and provide some coaching about personal space issues.
How to Practice Respecting Personal Space…
Teach your children to stand about an arm’s length away from people when they’re talking. When they’re standing in line, talk about how close to be to the person in front of them and talk about keeping their hands to themself. You might role-play various scenarios to help them practice describing appropriate personal space.
Making Eye Contact
Good eye contact is an important part of communication. Some kids struggle to look at the person they’re speaking to. Whether your child is shy and prefers to stare at the floor or simply won’t look up when engrossed in another activity, emphasize the importance of good eye contact. If your child struggles with eye contact, offer quick reminders after the fact. In a gentle voice, ask, “Where should your eyes go when someone is talking to you?” You don’t want to cause a shy child additional anxiety. And provide praise when your child remembers to look at people when they’re talking.
How to Practice Eye Contact…
You might even show your children how it feels to hold a conversation with someone who isn’t making eye contact: Ask them to share a story while you stare at the ground, close your eyes, or look everywhere except for at them. Invite them to tell another story and make appropriate eye contact while they’re talking. Afterward, discuss how it felt in each scenario.
Saying please and thank you and using good table manners can go a long way toward helping your child gain attention for the right reasons. Teachers, other parents, and other kids will respect a well-mannered child. Of course, teaching manners can feel like an uphill battle sometimes. From burping loudly at the table to acting ungratefully, all kids will let their manners go out the window sometimes. It is important, however, for kids to know how to be polite and respectful—especially when they’re in other people’s homes or at school.
How to Practice Using Manners…
Be a good role model with your manners. That means saying, “No, thank you,” and “Yes, please,” to your child on a regular basis. Make sure to use your manners when you’re interacting with other people. Offer reminders when your children forget to use manners and praise them when you catch them being polite.