Helping kids build satisfying social lives is a worthy goal. Research shows healthy social skills can boost academic achievement. But it's also a challenge – from planning play dates to encouraging tech-happy teens to interact sans screens. These expert tips can help you raise a confidently connected kid.
Ages 0-5: Social cues
"Right from birth, parents are cultivating their infant's social skills," says Randi S. Rubenstein, executive director of Education for Successful Parenting in North Carolina. "Are the parents responsive? Gentle? Calm? This is a baby's first introduction to their social world." You help shape a child's beliefs and expectations about social interactions and set the tone for how a child navigates future relationships, she notes.
Treating babies and tots as people deserving of respect helps paves the way for respectful social relationships. This means giving kids space to express their feelings, responding to their cues and allowing them to make choices whenever possible.
Help expand a toddler's or preschooler's primitive social skills in community programs, library story times and mommy-and-me groups. Joint participation is key, says Rubenstein, because parent-guided social interactions have more meaning in early years.
Ages 6-12: Club connection
Elementary school brings more opportunities with sports, afterschool activities and clubs. Kids are expanding their social skill set and circle, says Kathleen Rotella, principal of St. Mark's Episcopal School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
"Children learn a number of social lessons quickly: taking turns, sharing, patience, respect, listening, talking positively about others and friendliness."
Kids can explore activities like scouting, music, dance, theater, chess club and faith-based groups, says Rubenstein, noting these can be "a springboard for cultivating new friendships." Let your child lead the way; the right activity will be enjoyable, spark excitement and suit the child's temperament. Parents can support social growth by arranging play dates, modeling good manners and sportsmanship, and helping children reflect on what went wrong when things go awry.
Ages 13-18: Text hex
Teens are notoriously social, but these days, they're more likely to be glued to a screen. Researchers at University of Arizona note teens send an average 114 texts per day. That's troubling, because the teen years are a formative social period, and face-to-face relationships build trust and empathy.
"The ability to develop healthy peer relationships becomes vitally important to a teen's self-esteem and well-being," says Rubenstein.
Opening your home to your kids' friends after school (stock up on snacks!), planning movie nights and inviting friends to dinner with the family offers opportunities to build relationships and polish social skills. Another benefit: You can observe and offer guidance.
"Parents should listen and offer support without criticism," says Rubenstein. "Although teens are exploring new freedoms, these mature discussions with parents can serve as their touchstone as they learn how to navigate socially in the world."