Jair Bolsonaro. Matteo Salvini. Rodrigo Duterte. Andrzej Duda. Vladimir Putin. Donald Trump. Xi Jinping... even our own Boris Johnson - all of these world leaders share a common factor; one unusual in a leader. Each has demonstrated a profound lack of social skills. Arguably, civilisation is much worse off for it.

Are we to believe that these men were never taught to share or care? Were they raised in an unloving environment, one where trust was less of a driver than competition and winning at all costs? Was life, for them growing up, nothing more than a zero-sum game?

Is it important, right now, to debate how some of the world's most impactful politicians came by their worldview?

What really matters at this moment is how we move forward from the chaos sown by some of the ideals leaders such as those espouse and tried to inflict on humanity. The best way to do that is to teach our children how to function in society - how to create a positive atmosphere where everyone has an equal stake in... everything.

Once, we believed that children learned social skills as a matter of course. We now know that is not the case; parents actually have to put effort into shaping their children's ability to function in society.

Going to school from an early age helps kids learn a more expanded set of social skills. In the same way that an apprenticeship teaches job skills, mingling with peers in a controlled environment teaches one how to function in a group setting, with people from many different backgrounds.

Where do children who are home schooled get that type of exposure and experience?

That is what your Superprof talks with you about today.

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What Are Social Skills?

It used to be that running around half-clad or in ill-fitting clothing was considered socially repugnant; clear signs that one must be socially inept. Today, both have become fashion trademarks.

Each of these extremes represents the ability to present oneself in society but one's fashion sense does not represent social skills - that elusive set of behaviours and personal characteristics that mark the difference between someone who respects your personal space and anyone willing to get in your face.

We need to be clear about what we mean about social skills.

You have to develop your kids' social skills over time
Social skills take time and training to learn. Photo credit: J. McPherskesen on Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC-SA

It's easy to imagine that most parents want their youngsters to be able to function confidently in social situations, be liked and have friends; know what behaviours are appropriate in any situation and be able to convey ideas and make suitable responses to others.

As you might have guessed, listening tops the list of social skills that everyone should cultivate.

There's a vast difference between hearing and listening. The latter means focusing on what your conversation partner says without thinking of your response while s/he is still talking - a common phenomenon that leads people to feel 'unmet'.

Along with listening, asking questions is a vital social skill. We're not talking the perennial 'why?' that toddlers drive you to distraction with but open-ended questions designed to elicit information. You might think that is a tall order for a child to learn but you'd be surprised at how quickly and well kids master it.

Listening and questioning are prominent aspects of communication that are fairly obvious social skills. Now, we drill down into those that are less visible; ones that you maybe never thought of as social skills.

Recognising and identifying their feelings is the first step towards their becoming empathetic towards other people.  Contrary to popular belief, we are not born empathetic; we learn how to be - through our experiences and guided lessons.

Learning early to recognise feeling mad, sad or glad - and being able to vocalise one's feelings (and the reasons for them) not only makes us more self-assured but allows us to see our range of emotions reflected in other people.

Other social skills parents generally teach their kids but may not consider them social skills include:

  • sharing - toys, food and taking turns
  • respect: saying 'please' and 'thank you', 'excuse me' and 'bless you'
    • respect includes behaving appropriately in a given setting; not shouting in a library, for instance.
  • politeness
  • manners
  • kindness and charity

By charity, we don't mean giving to relief organisations - although that is certainly a part of a socially skilled person's ethos. Rather, we mean an absence of judgment against people who are not like ourselves; a willingness to learn about and appreciate differences rather than hold others to account for not being like us.

Social Skills Across Cultures

In China, it is perfectly acceptable for people to stand within centimetres of you. If you welcome a Chinese person into your home, don't be surprised if they open your cabinets and drawers to see what's inside. Western cultures would deem such actions an egregious invasion of privacy but, in Asian cultures, permitting such explorations signals openness and a willingness to share.

When teaching social skills, cultural competencies must also come into consideration.

In cultures where guests, elders or any other segment of the population is venerated, one shouldn't raise an eyebrow about how those people are treated even if it makes you uncomfortable. Therefore, if you take your children to dine at a Korean or Japanese restaurant and they express surprise that the host and waitstaff bow to them, you might take that opportunity to teach them about how other cultures show respect. 

Despite our current pandemic conditions that severely curtail travel, we live in a globalised society. Teaching your children that social competencies are not the same everywhere in the world - indeed, some of the manners thought of as desirable in our culture might be considered insults in other countries is vital to expanding their understanding of how societies work.

For instance, we think nothing about helping to wash up after enjoying a meal at a friend's house but woe to you if you step foot in the kitchen of a family whose culture espouses the belief that the guest is royalty!

Different cultures have different social norms
What's acceptable in a particular social setting or culture may be frowned upon in another Photo credit: Beegee49 on VisualHunt.com / CC BY-ND

Thoughts on Teaching Social Skills

Developing social skills is an important part of education. It is also an issue often raised in connection with home education.

It’s commonly assumed that children gain social skills from being in school. But this is not entirely the case; social competence is learned from being around mature social adults as well as other children, in a variety of settings.

With that focus in mind, here are few ideas to think about when guiding this process.

The greatest influence on children’s social development is the demonstration of the adults around them, particularly those whom they are closest to.

Children’s social competence develops through the opportunity to converse with others, particularly adults. So involving them in a mix of social situations, groups and activities aids this process. To improve cultural competencies, expose your children to as many socio-cultural situations as possible that are different from what they might experience in their usual circles.

Our personal or private conversations with our children, particularly about other people’s behaviour, social codes, bullying, or their social observations, can help them understand and learn what’s appropriate and what isn’t. They need to feel they can safely talk about things.

Youngsters don’t need to be forced into interaction; this doesn’t help - particularly if they are shy. Their social skills will develop naturally as they gain confidence and have the opportunities to practice social skills in a variety of situations.

Children gain confidence in their dealings with others by watching how we conduct our interactions and by having chances to interact in situations where they’re not threatened, embarrassed, ridiculed or put on the spot before they’re ready.

Be aware, though, that their confidence will fluctuate as they grow and go through changes, especially adolescence. Our guidance and support are crucial through difficult times as they mature. They need to feel we are entirely on their side... but that doesn't mean you should condone any bad behaviours they might test you with.

Everyone wants to be liked.

The basis of being liked lies in how we behave, both from our incentives and how we manage our relationships. For instance, if you constantly interrupt when someone is speaking with you, you'll soon find that even your lifelong friends will likely not answer your calls.

Children need to understand this: how their actions affect others and how those actions influence what other people feel about them.

They need to be mindful about how they come across and how others might perceive them, as part of their observations and growing understanding of social interactions. Talking about these things increases their awareness of the complex relationships that are a natural part of our everyday lives.

How to Teach and Improve Your Children's Social Skills

Autistic children need more help learning social skills
A child with autism or other disability may need more intensive coaching to learn social skills Photo credit: Beegee49 on VisualHunt.com / CC BY-ND

Before we discuss general guidelines, let's talk for a moment about other-abled children. Being blind, deaf, physically different or autistic will pose a specific set of challenges on your child that most other children would not have to work with in any social situation.

A large part of being socially competent is being able to pick up on non-verbal clues. Body language, tone of voice and facial expressions are all important aspects of communication that we normally draw social clues from. For instance, someone may express a willingness to be approached by facing their body toward you and opening their eyes wide, maybe even slightly smiling.

These are all clues that a visually impaired child or someone who is autistic could well miss out on. If your child is on the autism spectrum or otherwise impaired - even if s/he is introverted, you will have to work a bit harder to ensure their social competencies, even if it means teaching them that it's okay to proclaim their unique circumstances when warranted.

From your child's earliest years, teaching them to share and be nice is a given. The key is encouraging them to share - toys, food; maybe even items of clothing with a wide variety of people, not just family members or select friends. This teaches your child that everyone is worth sharing with.

What about those toddler temper tantrums?

One reason that children have these episodes is frustration: they lack the tools and vocabulary to communicate what they want or feel. Teaching your children baby sign language or otherwise deciphering non-verbal clues s/he may give will go a long way toward helping your toddler feel accepted and understood. Furthermore, it may boost his/her ability to function socially later on.

Note that, if your child is on the autism spectrum, learning to sign as a toddler could benefit their efforts at communicating later on, when expressing themselves becomes more difficult for them.

Whether you decide that baby sign language is right for your child or not, you should always speak with your child. Doing so helps them to develop language skills from an early age.

What about communicating feelings?

If your toddler suddenly breaks out in a shrieking frenzy, that is a golden opportunity for you to teach them how to identify what they're feeling and how to manage that emotion. Ask: "Are you angry?" while making an angry face. "Are you frustrated?" while miming frustration yourself. "Are you hurt?" - again, mime the expression and body language that reflects pain.

Once you've ascertained what s/he's feeling, show how to deal with the situation that caused the emotion.

It may take a few times for your child to realise that s/he can identify what ails him/her but, soon, you'll be treated to fewer tantrums and more resourceful management of situations your toddler may find themselves in - a remarkable sight to behold.

You may find yourself having to remind your toddler to use their words occasionally - in times when they feel overwhelmed but, overall, teaching them ways to express themselves and encouraging self-expression at every turn is a building block to mastering social skills.

As your child grows, your teaching methods and what you teach will have to evolve, too.

You should find opportunities for your family to get involved in the community. For your child, perhaps participating in organised sports, joining an art class or your church's youth group would be excellent ways to expose them to a variety of situations where social skills are needed. Don't forget about your library's reading group!

Whether you plan to send your child to school or home school, always remember that you are your child's primary educator. Keeping them engaged - keeping their minds engaged by asking open-ended questions and encouraging discussion is the best way to improve their social competencies. 

Teaching your child good manners and how to behave is only half of what they need in their social skills toolkit. The rest - openness, empathy, curiosity and conversation, they'll pick up from you.

Indeed, these social skills cannot be taught in the classroom!

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Joseph

Joseph is a French and Spanish to English translator, language enthusiast, and blogger.