You’ve probably heard the phrase, “Manners matter,” but you may not know just how much. Social skills are more critical to your child’s future success than either intelligence or academic prowess. They affect your child’s self-esteem, grades, career choices and future relationships, says Dr. John Mayer, Chicago-based clinical psychologist.
Some kids seem to intuitively learn the nuances of social interactions, while other kids need extra help. Kids diagnosed with ADHD, language delays or autism spectrum disorders especially benefit from some direct social skills teaching. Before you try teaching manners to your child, make sure your own manners are up to standard. “Set the example by being kind and friendly yourself,” Dr. Mayer says. “Observe your child in social settings, so you understand her strengths and challenges.”
Here are five simple manners you should teach your child to use in everyday life:
Making eye contact. Many kids, especially those with autism, avoid making eye contact, which can seem intimidating or even cause sensory overload. If your child avoids eye contact, talk to him about why eye contact is important, that it sends the message that we are listening and empathizing. Teach your child to look the other person in the eyes every few seconds. Use hand signals to remind your child to make eye contact, suggest suggests Dr. Alison P. Block, licensed psychologist and director of the Health Psychology Center in Little Silver, New Jersey. “Hold up two fingers, point to your eyes and then point to your child’s eyes,” she says.
Respecting physical space. Most adults have firm personal space boundaries, but kids often have no awareness of this concept. Does your child get in your face, stand too closely to others or constantly touch her friends? If so, try this trick from Dr. Block to teach the concept: Have your child hold her arm out from her body. When talking to friends or teachers, she should never get closer than arm’s length. Another idea is to tell your child to pretend she has a bubble around her. If she gets too close to someone, the bubble will pop.
Starting a conversation. Remember that awkward cocktail party? Starting a conversation can be hard even for adults, so it can be a real struggle for kids. But most people love talking about themselves and the best way to start a conversation is by asking a question. Teach your child a few basic questions to get the conversation going, such as, “What school do you go to?” or “Do you like sports?”
Sharing and taking turns. Let’s face it: Sharing is hard, even for grown-ups. We expect kids to share, but as adults, we rarely have to share our favorite toys: cell phones, cars, Prada shoes. Children younger than 4 usually don’t have the emotional or cognitive skills necessary to share with others. As kids get older, they can begin to learn to share, but don’t wait to teach your child about sharing. Say something like, “While Aaron’s here, you must share your toys. If there’s anything you don’t feel comfortable sharing, we should put it in the closet now.” Use puppets to role play ahead of time, suggests Lea Keating, early childhood educator and founder of Sensory Street Kids. Teach kids specific phrases to use in social situations, such as, “Can I have a turn?” or “Can I play?” Talk about what to do if a child says no—wait for a turn, look for another toy or ask an adult for help.
Reading facial expressions and labeling emotions. Many kids have a hard time interpreting nonverbal communication, which makes up over 70 percent of our interactions. Try these tricks from Jennifer Little, educational consultant and founder of Parents Teach Kids: “Watch a television show with the sound off. Have the child relate what each character would be thinking or feeling as the story unfolds. Or, find photographs of people’s faces and have your child make up a story or explain what is happening and how the person is feeling.”
Learning positive social skills is a task that can take a lifetime, but the rewards are worth the effort. All kids want to feel loved and accepted, and good social skills pave the way for rewarding personal relationships. As a parent, you play a big part in helping your child develop these skills. Make note and offer praise when your child gets it right. A little positive reinforcement goes a long way.