Teaching Children Social Skills

See also: Social Skills for Parents

Small children, though they can undeniably be extremely cute, are not renowned for their social skills. They throw food, they scream and shout, they run about and generally do some very uncivilised things.

Part of the responsibility of parents is to educate their children, and teach them social skills, to make them a reasonable member of society.

This can be extremely challenging, and there may be plenty of times when you feel that your efforts are entirely in vain. It is, however, worth persevering as your children will be pleasanter to live with, and nicer people, if you do.

Different Approaches to Parenting

There are many different approaches to parenting, including to teaching social skills, and there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to do it.

French Children Don’t Throw Food

A few years ago, there was a lot of publicity in the press about a book called French Children Don't Throw Food. The author, Pamela Druckerman, an American living in Paris, wrote about the French approach to parenting and bringing up children, and how this resulted in better-behaved children.

Druckerman concluded that French children were taught quite differently, and social skills were valued much more highly than in Anglophone countries.

Other commentators, however, such as Franglais Mummy, an English/French blogger, have suggested that the differences are much more down to individuals.

The key to teaching your children social skills is to think about what you think is important, and focus on that.

There are various areas that you may like to consider; our page on Developing Interpersonal Skills in Children suggests some suitable areas to cover. You may also find our pages on character-building skills useful, perhaps starting with Goodness: Learning to use your Moral Compass, and a Framework for Living Well.

Guidelines for Teaching and Developing Social Skills

Once you have decided which skills are most important to you, then you need to think about how you are going to teach them.

Here are our top tips for this:

1. Show, Don’t Tell

Your behaviour speaks volumes, and your children will remember it far more effectively than what you have told them.

If you wish them to be kind to others, be kind to them, and demonstrate that you, too, are kind to others. If you want them to be polite, make sure that you say please and thank you to other people, including your children.

The bottom line: you have to do it too.

If you forget, or get very stressed, and end up modelling completely the wrong behaviour to your children, all is not lost. This is, in fact, an opportunity to show them that adults, too, make mistakes.  Wait until you are calm and then apologise to them for behaving like that, and say that you know it was not the right thing to do.

2. Be prepared to remind your children how to behave on a repeated basis

Socialisation is a long and involved process. It takes many years.

Be prepared to have to remind your children constantly of the need to say please, ask politely, and thank people when they do something for you.

You may, however, find it easier to model the behaviour you want (for example, when you hand your child a drink, wait a moment, then say “Thank you, Mummy”) rather than ask “What do you say?” every five minutes. If they have forgotten, they have forgotten.

Remember that children are naturally manipulative.

From a very early age, they know what to do to get your attention. Part of socialisation is learning how and when not to push someone’s buttons.

For more about how not to react instantly, read our page on Mindful Parenting.

3. Praise and reinforce the behaviour that you want

It is always more effective to reinforce the behaviour that you want than to criticise what you don’t want.

This means that every time your child is polite, or thanks someone without being prompted, you need to notice and praise them. This may sound a bit much at first, but it will very definitely be pleasanter for everyone than spending your life saying,

“Why don’t you ever say thank you?”

4. Make it age-appropriate

Whether you are teaching your toddler the importance of responding when someone says ‘hello’, or your teenager how to behave in a job interview, your teaching needs to be age-appropriate.

You may find it helpful to look at our page on Understanding Toddlers and Young Children to help with this.

5. Focus on What is Really Important

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of things that you could teach your children to make them better behaved, dating back many, many years:

Children should be seen and not heard
No elbows on the table
Don’t talk with your mouth full
Mind your Ps and Qs

…and so on.

You could try to teach them all, at the same time. You and your children may, however, find it much easier if you focus on just a few things at a time, in an age-appropriate way.

Decide what is really important—whether that is kindness to a sibling, sharing nicely, or table manners—and concentrate on that.

Once the rules on that area are clear, you can move onto something else.

The Bottom Line…

The key issue in teaching children social skills is that you have to be clear what is important to you, and show your children by the way that you behave.

It is no good telling them that they have to say please and thank you if you never do. Likewise, if you want them not to shout at each other, it is no good shouting at them all the time, however tempting it may be.

If this requires a long, hard look at yourself, then you may find it helpful to read our pages on Reflective Practice and Self-Control.