Thursday, September 20, 2007

Teaching Social Skills—Start Early!

My 16-month-old daughter Meara is fascinated with babies. She points them out everywhere we go, especially if they’re crying. She will insist “baby, sad” when I don’t see a stroller anywhere, but if I listen carefully I’ll hear a tiny wail from someplace far away. Kids as young as one show clear signs of empathy. So how do I encourage my kid to develop these important interpersonal skills? Here’s what I’m doing:

Label feelings. My daughter points out sad babies because we have talked about it many, many times. When she does something that she knows is a “no-no” I tell her that I’m frustrated or mad and use the appropriate facial expression. I try to be just as descriptive about positive feelings. “Thank you for the hug. Hugs make mommy happy!” She will actually dance around the room with me screeching “Happy! Happy!” I think she’s getting the idea.

Read together. We talk about what the character does, but also what he thinks and feels. I just read an article that convinced me it’s a great way to help kids understand other people’s perspectives. Kids who can see other points of view are much better off socially.

Model ways to solve conflict. I used to train peer mediators for schools. Kids as young as 5 can be great mediators if you teach them the language and steps to use. My daughter is too young to actively participate in solving conflicts, but I’m starting with the building blocks. I give her options throughout the day (would you like the pink shirt or the white shirt?) so she learns to make choices. When I have to enforce MY choices I always explain why. “We have to leave the park now because it’s time for dinner.” Positive Discipline: The First Three Years is a great resource for toddlers. There are also preschool and teenage versions, in addition to the original.

Laugh together. Help your child develop a sense of humor. Appreciate when he or she tries to make a joke. Share things that you find funny. Kids love to hear funny stories about themselves, so that’s a good place to start. I wrote a few weeks ago about how humor is correlated with high intelligence, sociability, and self-esteem, among other things (Toddler Humor). It’s an easy way to connect with people and break the ice.

These are good basics for grownups to remember too. I have to remind myself sometimes to tell others how I’m feeling or to address a conflict before it escalates. If you have kids, you know what incredible sponges they are. You have a real opportunity to make a difference in the quality of their interactions with people for the rest of their lives.

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