The 8 Most Important Social Skills for Kids, According to a Child Psychologist

editor@purewow.com (PureWow)
·9 mins read

Let’s be honest, we’re all winging it when it comes to this whole parenting thing. And for the most part, our instincts are good. But who hasn’t experienced a little self-doubt after seeing one’s own child do something unsavory? (You know, like that time your kid pulled down their pants in the parking lot). First, cut yourself and your kid some slack—we’re all learning. Then, brush up on the basics so you can make sure your young person stays on the right track. Here’s the scoop on the most important social skills for kids plus how to practice them, according to child psychologist Dr. Bethany Cook.

1. Basic Manners (AKA Baseline Respect)

Why It Matters

This one doesn’t represent a single social skill, but rather a group of behaviors that range from traditional ‘good manners’ (i.e., please and thank you) to social habits that guide healthy peer interactions, like sharing and taking turns. Parents probably don’t need to be told why these skills are important—we’ve already dubbed some of them as magic words—but just in case: “A child who has these basic skills will be able to successfully interact with others in social settings (as well as virtual interactions) in positive ways, with the end goal of getting their needs met in a socially acceptable manner,” says Dr. Cook. Translation? A polite kid is a win-win for everybody.  

How to Practice

When it comes to imparting polite behavior to your kid, it’s no surprise that Dr. Cook suggests parents pay careful attention to the way they interact with adults and young people alike. “When it comes to teaching our children about turn-taking, sharing and following directions, they learn the most from what they see us do. How do you speak to your spouse, friends and strangers?” In other words, kids are excellent mimics (but you knew that one already, right?). So the next time your child shouts for a second helping at dinnertime, don’t bark back, “OK, give me your bowl!” because although the frustration is fair, said child is likely to start imitating your brusk demeanor. Instead, try something like, “Can you please ask nicely for another portion? Thank you.”

2. Eye Contact

Why It Matters

The concept is basic but it can be a hard habit to acquire, even for adults. In practice, eye contact is a valuable way of showing respect for others, and it’s also a confidence-builder. Per Dr. Cook, “Looking at someone when speaking not only establishes an element of trust and validity, but it also allows the speaker and the listener to read all the subtle non-verbal facial expressions, which convey much more meaning than words.” Bottom line: When it comes to teaching kids how to form authentic connections with peers, eye contact is key.

How to Practice

So how do you encourage this important, but oft-neglected behavior? According to Dr. Cook, you should just embrace the initial awkwardness and make it fun. “If you or your child are uncomfortable with sustained eye contact, start out by making it a game by having a staring contest.” This strategy won’t work for every individual though, so if your kid is still a touch too shy to participate in a staring contest, Cook says your best bet is to simply “get down on their level and kindly remind them why it's important.” Hint: The ‘getting down on their level’ part is particularly crucial because it encourages­—you guessed it—eye contact.

3. Understanding Personal Space

Why It Matters

Of course, you want to love every physical interaction with your child but there are times when you’re just touched out (like when your toddler has figured out how to give raspberries and the habit has become more skin-crawling than charming). We’ve got good news for any mom that has experienced that ‘get off me’ moment: There’s no shame in your game. Per Cook, everyone has an invisible boundary where we feel safe and comfortable—like when someone stands too close or gets in your face. Kids need to learn to respect personal space in order for a child to be able to successfully create and maintain close relationships. Not learning this valuable skill means that those inevitable ‘back off’ vibes will feel like peer rejection down the road.

How to Practice

It’s truly difficult to assert physical boundaries with small children. It’s biological: They want to be close. And while it may be tempting to shout, “Give me space!” while pulling your offspring off you, Cook has a better strategy: “Ask your child to stand about 10 feet away from you and then slowly walk toward them until they feel like you are too close and have them say ‘stop.’ Repeat this activity with everyone in the family and compare the differences in individual needs when it comes to personal space.” Why didn’t we think of that?

4. Boundary Setting

Why It Matters

Boundaries are a big deal. Maybe the biggest deal. They’re kind of the ultimate social skill because to ignore them or to be unable to set them is antisocial at best, with the potential to be downright dangerous if not properly understood. Why? “Knowing how to set and respect limits allows a child to feel safe within the confines of ‘this is OK, but that is not.” To do this is no easy task since it involves vulnerability, but this in turn creates courage, explains Cook.

How to Practice

The bad news is that this one is complicated for a lot of adults, so extra mindfulness is in order on the parenting side of the equation. If you know you struggle with boundary setting, Cook recommends an assertiveness training class (yep, it’s a real thing). What if you’re perfectly assertive in your adult relationships but still find it hard to set and maintain boundaries with your wily kid? Don’t worry, says Cook. “Children will learn the most by watching you set and enforce all sorts of boundaries in your life, both with your kids but also other adults.” So keep modeling the best boundary-setting behavior but remember that this lesson doesn’t just revolve around your kid crossing a line. A good role model in this regard must also respect the child’s limits. Cook’s suggestion is to pay attention to your kid’s wishes: “If your child doesn’t want to be tickled, don’t tickle them. If they don’t want to be cuddled, don’t be overly affectionate.” Reasonable.

5. Compassion and Empathy

Why It Matters

When we talk about ‘being a good person,’ it’s really a catchall phrase that refers to any number of behaviors motivated by compassion. “Compassion is one of the most important components of so many prosocial behaviors including altruism and heroism...and you can teach this skill,” says Cook.

How to Practice

As with most social skills, a huge part of teaching empathy to a child comes down to modeling it yourself. That said, a more direct approach will also do your child good. Cook suggests that parents frequently ask their children to stop and put themselves in someone else’s shoes, as this starts a conversation that “wires their brain for connection and compassion.” Example: Your kid and his best friend are racing, but the friend takes a spill and starts crying. You could let your kid keep running gleefully while the other parent comforts their child, or you could call your own child over and ask him if he noticed his friend got hurt and how he would feel if he fell down in a race—go with option two and you’re teaching empathy.

6. Personal Health and Hygiene

Why It Matters

This one is kind of a no-brainer, but it’s worth repeating. “Teaching your child about the importance of eating a balanced diet, getting enough sleep, exercising, and about good hygiene practices is a must,” says Cook. These things might not sound like social skills, but they have a big impact. Poor personal health makes interacting with others more difficult because when you’re tired or hungry, you’ll in turn be more focused on yourself and your body’s needs than those around you. Any mama (i.e., every mama) who has tried to have a conversation while suffering from sleep-deprivation can attest to this. 

How to Practice

The job of teaching your child the importance of personal health is pretty straightforward. If you ensure your child brushes her teeth twice a day, bathes regularly, eats well, goes to bed on time and wears clean clothes, then you’ve got this one covered.

7. Non-Verbal Communication Skills

Why It Matters

You’ve probably heard this before, and it’s true—so much of communication is non-verbal. Unsurprisingly, “being able to successfully interpret non-verbal communication (body shifts, deep sighs, eye rolls, etc.) is important, so your child knows how and when to shift their own interactions if needed,” Cook explains. This skill is critical to the formation of positive relationships, she adds. 

How to Practice

So how do you teach your kid to understand non-verbal cues? Per Cook: “The best way to teach this skill is by watching movies created without words like Shaun the Sheep, or watching a show without volume, and then discussing with your children what they think is going on with the storyline.” Yep, you now have a perfectly good excuse for spending a little time on the couch with your kid today.

8. Listening

Why It Matters

Listening is a big one and kids who can’t do it won’t just frustrate their parents. “If your child is unable to listen to someone else, they will struggle in all their relationships,” cautions Cook. Listening skills don’t just affect a child’s ability to follow directions, they also determine whether or not a child is capable of forming meaningful connections with others which is key to leading a happy life.

How to Practice

Cook recommends that parents use play (like ‘Simon says’ and ‘Red Light, Green Light’) to help children develop listening skills from a young age, while older kids benefit from quiet chats without the distraction of screens. 

So what’s the takeaway? We’ve got our work cut out for us, friends. But then again, no one said raising a decent human was going to be easy.

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