Some kids float through life with an inherent social grace, charming adults and peers wherever they go. Other kids pick their nose and announce loudly that their playdate is boring before locking themselves in the bedroom.
I won’t comment either way on which type of kids I have, except to say that our bedroom doors don’t have locks anymore.
I was painfully shy as a kid, much more comfortable with Nancy Drew and those spunky girls in the Babysitters’ Club than with actual humans. I’m probably not the best person to be teaching my kids social skills, but I’m all they’ve got. And I like the idea of social grace as a something you can learn.
Kids aren’t born knowing how to shoot free throws or cook an omelet, so I don’t think it’s fair to expect them to automatically know how to make friends. Or charm adults. Or work a room.
Actually, I don’t want them to work a room. I don’t care if they are popular — I sort of prefer that they hole up in the attic trying on Harry Potter capes until their arranged marriage. But I do want them to be kind, and polite, and a good friend to everyone they meet.
With that in mind, here are a few social skills you can stress for the school year.
1. Make eye contact, smile and say ‘Hi’
This type of greeting is sometimes hard for my kids, especially with adults. I’ve even resorted to squeezing their adorable cheeks and saying, “Look Miss Julie in the eye, answer her question, and smile.” It’s a cheesy moment and probably awkward for everyone involved. Still, I’m hoping that a little embarrassment now will pay off down the road with kids who smile at classmates and know how to tell their grandparents about their summer vacation.
2. Learn the art of conversation
You can talk with your kids about what makes a good conversation: sharing information but not monopolizing a discussion, asking questions, really paying attention and listening. One fun way to help your kids learn to listen is to pretend to be a reporter and interview them. Then, turn the tables and ask your children to interview someone else. It’s a fun, easy game that stresses the importance of listening and focusing on others.
3. Play the name game
My own name is basically unpronounceable, but I’m always grateful when someone attempts to say it. There are all sorts of tricks to remembering a person’s name: repeating it, using a mnemonic device such as alliteration. You don’t need to worry about cocktail party tricks with young kids, but you can encourage your teens to learn the names of their classmates and to say hi to everyone. You never know who might need it.
4. Know that your bestie is the person beside you
BFF, bestie: I hate those terms because I think they are by the very nature too exclusionary. Teach your children to include everyone and to enjoy the company of whomever they are with. I think it’s important, too, to talk with teens about careful use of social media. For example, your teen shouldn’t Instagram pictures of her 16th birthday party if she only invited a handful of her “followers.”
5. Practice empathy
I truly believe that the best social skill you can teach is kindness, but I struggle with exactly how it can or should be taught. Perhaps the most important thing you can do as a parent is to model empathy. Speak only kind words about others. (This is hard, and I’m always working to do better.) Be quick to offer help whenever it’s needed. Encourage your children to serve in small ways, such as taking in the garbage cans for a neighbor or holding someone’s door. And encourage them to talk with someone who is playing alone. As a life skill, being empathetic won’t necessarily make your child the most popular kid in school … but it will guarantee that he always has a friend.