The One Skill Every Kid Needs to Succeed


By: Katie Hurley

We all want our kids to hone their social skills as they grow, but do we all take the time to teach them how to get along with others?

I often joke that my children have no choice in the matter, because I’m a child psychotherapist. They’ve been able to identify feelings since before they could talk, and we talk a lot about how to be helpful, how to be kind, how to show empathy and what it really means to get along with others. Like it or not, working on the social-emotional stuff is just part of the landscape around here.

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More often than not, when very young kids end up in my office, it has something to do with social skills.

A new study funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and reported on in The Washington Post shows that children who scored well on social competence reports were more likely to have a college degree and a full-time job by age 25 than those who did not. The study is based on data collection of 753 kindergarten students in four states beginning in 1991.

What does this mean for parents in the trenches right now? Start working on social skills … yesterday.

While it would be great to leave this task up to preschool and kindergarten teachers, kids need more practice in various settings to learn how to get along with others. They also need specific skills and feedback. While it’s great to suggest sharing with another kid at the park, sharing doesn’t actually mean giving away your possessions without question for the entire time you play at the park. That only builds resentment among kids and adds to the confusion of sharing.

So what does it mean to play well with others? It might help to consider these do’s and don'ts of basic social skills.

1, Greetings

DO practice looking up and saying “hello” when someone greets him. This can actually be a hard skill for kids to master. Meeting new people, especially new adults, can feel intimidating. Pro tip: Host a “fancy” dinner party at home and try on different roles to practice greeting new people.

DON’T force a quiet child to interact with new people immediately. Allow time for warming up to the situation instead. Watch and wait, move close, then help your child by getting low and modeling the greeting.

Sharing involves give and take, not just give or take.

2. Conversation starters

DO teach your child to offer a compliment, comment on a common interest or ask a question to get a conversation going. Pro tip: Think about possible topics of interest before you arrive at the destination so kids don’t freeze up.

DON’T force your kids to play with kids who aren’t a good match. Give your child time to explore and find friends on his own terms.

3. Sharing

DO talk about what it means to share. Sharing involves give and take, not just give or take. Practice this in the safety of your home before entering play with others. Ask your child to talk about the good things that happen when kids share. Pro tip: Watch other kids at play and point out instances of sharing to show your kids the fun of playing with others.

You know those days when your child wants to build a home for every worm trapped on the sidewalk? That’s empathy talking, and that’s a powerful tool.

DON’T force your child to share a special or favorite toy with others. Do you share everything you own? Sometimes kids need something just for them. That’s not selfish; that’s just human.

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4. Empathy

DO nurture your child’s empathic tendencies. You know those days when your child wants to build a home for every worm trapped on the sidewalk? That’s empathy talking, and that’s a powerful tool. Talk about what it means to care about and for others. When kids squabble, help them see the other person’s perspective. Pro tip: Help your child plant some flowers. Believe it or not, nurturing nature helps kids build empathy skills.

DON’T dismiss your own child’s feelings in an effort to protect the feelings of others. When parents model empathy, kids learn how to empathize with others. Listen to your children. Validate their feelings. Empathize with them often. This will help them grow into kind, compassionate, happy and successful adults.

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Photograph by: Twenty20