Having a mother who was an English teacher and a father who was in the armed forces ensured that I was taught social etiquette at a very young age. As children, we were expected to mind our manners, be polite and say “Good evening Uncle/ Aunty” to whoever walked through our door. We were expected to make small talk and then retreat to the children’s areas while the grownups chatted. And that was the world we lived in. There was a certain code of conduct with parents, teachers, friends and family that was established and maintained.
Times have changed. As our generation have now become parents, the formality in relationships has reduced considerably. Social conventions are far more casual. My children call most of our friends and family by their first names. They chill and hang out with us as part of a whole group. And we’ve redefined social conventions to suit our family.
But, social skills is about far more than social conventions. It’s teaching your child how to function in society, not just in the confines of your home. Some children have inherent social skills while others struggle socially. Some children are shy and awkward around people they have just met. Others struggle to communicate in a larger group setting. Every child has a different level of social competence, parts of which are innate and parts of which have developed over time.
One of the main reasons children go to school, apart from learning to read and write, is to develop social skills. Taking turns, listening to someone speak without interrupting, asking for permission to interrupt, respecting personal space, navigating playground rules and dynamics are only a small part of the social skills that our children learn in school everyday. School prepares them for life as it teaches them to get along with different types of people, collaborate with authority figures while carving out their own individual identity. But, school can only do so much. And not every child has the ability to develop their social skills without parental guidance and support. So, what can we do to help our children navigate society in a comfortable and confident way?
As with everything else, start early. Habits develop over a period of time. You cannot expect a teenager to develop social skills overnight. By teaching your child from a very young age, you are giving him time to make being social part of his personality.
Teach them to greet people
Some children aren’t physical and don’t like being hugged. That’s okay. Respect your child’s personal space. Others may not want to have a long conversation and may just want to hide behind your legs when they meet somebody for the first time. That’s also okay. Do not force your child to do something against his will and inherent nature. If a child feels pressured in a social situation, it can trigger anxiety in them. Instead, talk to your child and explain that you have friends coming over and that you would like him to greet your friends and be friendly to them, the way you are friendly to his friends when they come over. He can choose how he wants to do it. He may want to wave and say hi from a door, standing 10 feet away or he can say ‘Hi’ while holding your hand. Let him decide what works for him. But he needs to greet your friends or family when they come visiting. Teach him to make eye contact and smile. It’s not what he says or does but how he says or does it.
As they get older, teach them to initiate conversation
Conversation skills do not come naturally to most people but, it can be developed. Children need to learn how to initiate and maintain a conversation. This requires developing their listening skills and attention span. Teach them to ask questions about the other person. Initially, they might ask the same question, but as they get more habituated, their questions will evolve. Teach them to take an interest in the person they are talking to. Questions like “Where do you live?” or “What do you do?” are a good starting point. Teach them to listen when the other person answers and follow up with a question or a statement to maintain the conversation. When asked a question, encourage them to avoid giving monosyllabic answers. Conversations are a two-way street. Your child must learn to listen and talk. Meal time conversations with the family are a great way to practice their skills and build their confidence. Encourage them to talk about their day and ask about yours as well.
Teach them to react to different environments
Functioning in society requires you to be able to read the room. As adults, we often expect children to have a natural understanding of what is expected of them. And some children who have high social functioning are able to immediately sense what is expected but others struggle in this area. Teach them that different behaviours are expected in different environments. It’s okay to run, jump and shout in a playground but it’s not okay to do the same in someone else’s house. You must speak in hushed voices in a library. Reducing your volume at a restaurant is being considerate to your fellow diners.
Teach them to be empathetic
Children have a natural tendency to view things in a unidimensional perspective. When your child complains about another child at school or cribs about his teacher, encourage them to put themselves in the other person’s shoes. What would they feel? How would they react? Empathy is an important social skill that needs to be developed amongst children. It’s the one skill that can make or break society today.
Teach them to be aware of and recognise non-verbal cues
Observing people’s tone of voice and body language helps in deciphering what they are feeling. If their friend’s face changes when they start talking about their holiday abroad, they might want to consider changing the topic. Similarly, teach them to be aware of how they are coming across. As they get older, children don’t realise their tonality and can often come across as being rude or disrespectful without even meaning to do so. An innocently asked question, “How does it matter?” can sound disrespectful depending on how you say it.
Teach them to resolve conflict
Problem solving and conflict resolution are also key social skills that children have to develop as they grow older. Being part of a larger group, there will always be people with whom your child agrees or disagrees. Learning to work their way through these situations is a life skill that they need to develop. If they adopt a “my way or the highway” road all the time, they will lose a lot of friends along the way. And if they say “Yes” all the time, they will get walked over and be treated like a doormat. Encourage them to negotiate and reach a compromise that works for both parties.
Teach them that it’s okay to apologise
We all make mistakes and inadvertently hurt people. It’s not about what you did wrong but what you do after that matters. How do you make amends? Teach them to acknowledge their mistakes and accept responsibility. A sincere, heartfelt apology can go a long way in maintaining relationships.
And as with everything else in parenting, be a good role model. Children absorb and practice what they see, not what they hear. So, practice what you preach.