By age seven, Jeremy Lin was getting straight A’s in school but failing socially. Rather than interact with other children, the Burlington youngster retreated behind a book. When adults other than relatives talked to him, he answered in monosyllables.
Jeremy’s mother, Amy, was upset but not surprised. Young for his grade to begin with, Jeremy skipped Grade 2, increasing the age gap between him and his peers. He spent so much time alone that he got little practice talking to other people of any age.
Amy wanted to help her son but wondered how. Should she dunk him in the deep end of the social pool-for instance, by sending him to camp-or let him get his toes wet at his own pace? Should she limit his reading the way some parents limit television time? Should she urge him to make play dates?
Social competence is a skill we often take for granted. We put our children in school so they can learn how to read, write and calculate. But we spend little time teaching them social skills, assuming this aspect of development just falls into place.
Yet Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner lists “interpersonal” intelligence as one of eight basic human aptitudes. Just as some children are naturally gifted in math, others are gifted at relating to people. At the other extreme are children who seem to lack social antennas alto-gether. They’re the kids you find kicking a stone near the school-yard fence.
The good news is that social competence can be improved-and it’s an effort worth making. According to Marion Porath, a University of British Columbia professor of educational psychology, studies have linked social competence to academic achievement.
Social aptitude can make or break careers and relationships in the adult world, adds Shirley Vandersteen, past president of the Psychologists’ Association of Alberta. “Poor social skills put you at a greater disadvantage than poor spelling,” she says.
How then can parents teach this fundamental life skill to their children? Here are some pointers:
Let’s start with the social skills we’re all expected to have. Saying hello, please and thank you, and answering a question-all fall into this category, says Kathy Lynn, a Vancouver-based parent educator and radio-show host.
“If an adult asks a child how school is going, the child should be expected to answer politely, even if she’s been asked the same question a dozen times before,” says Lynn. Answering “fine” is acceptable, but barely, she adds. “You can suggest more suitable alternatives, such as ‘I like math but not French.'”
Carole Snow, a Toronto schoolteacher and mother of three children, says one of her family’s rules is that they must all greet every visitor to the house. “That includes repairmen and door-to-door canvassers,” she says. “And they have to look the person in the eye.”
Another basic: how to shake hands. “People are judged on their handshake,” says Lynn. She recommends showing your child how long and how firmly to shake a hand, and then practising together until the child gets it right.
Then there’s the art of speaking in turn. Jan Pelletier, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Institute of Child Study, says parents shouldn’t presume this skill is instinctive and should give explicit instructions on how to do it. For example: “Listening means keeping your eyes on the speaker and your hands quiet. You can use sounds such as mm-hmm to show you understand or agree with what the speaker is saying. And wait until the speaker is finished before you start talking.”
But…She’s So Shy
Team sports present an ideal setting in which to develop social skills like co-operation, compromise and leadership. But what if your child is just not interested?
“Explore why the child is not interested. If the child is good at sports but is fearful that others will judge him, then encourage-but don’t force-the child to sign up,” advises Hamilton anxiety expert Martin Antony. “Take the pressure off by presenting the activity as something to try, to see if the child might like it.” If the first attempt doesn’t work, try again with a different sport.
Your child may surprise himself, as Burlington bookworm Jeremy Lin did when he tried soccer and loved it. Or your child may be miserable. If that’s the case, don’t push it. “There are no hard-and-fast rules,” Antony says.
Shyness is by no means uncommon. Research shows that between 15 and 20 percent of babies are born with an anxious temperament, and about three quarters of these grow up to be chronically shy. That’s 11 to 15 percent of all children.
It’s upsetting to watch your shy child stumble socially, and you may feel compelled to do something about it. Here’s what usually doesn’t work, says Martin Antony, director of the Anxiety Treatment and Research Centre at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Hamilton and coauthor of The Shyness and Social Anxiety Workbook: nagging, forcing the child to perform in high-pressure situations, or exposing him to a potentially embarrassing situation without warning. “Unpredictable exposure can lead to an escalation of the social anxiety,” Antony says.
Letting the shy child retreat from social interactions isn’t the answer either. Some parents, for instance, “will answer for their child in the doctor’s office, even though the doctor is posing the question to the child,” Antony says. “If you allow the child to avoid all anxiety-provoking situations, he won’t get a chance to overcome the anxiety.”
The best approach, says Antony, is the same type of “graduated exposure” that helps people overcome airplane or spider phobias. Suppose your son is afraid of talking to strangers. You might first ask him to show a toy to the “nice lady in the park” that you sometimes see; the next time you might encourage him to say a few words to her. “By proceeding in small, safe increments, the parent can help his child build up to the hard stuff, such as speaking at a party full of strangers,” Antony says.
Also helpful, says Pelletier, is teaching your child how to ease herself into a group at play. “One approach is to suggest a role for herself, such as ‘I’ll be the mommy,'” Pelletier says. “If the other kids say they already have a mommy, she can suggest being a big sister or a taxi driver.”
To a shy child, the Internet may seem a dream come true-a chance to connect socially without the risk of rejection. But it can also delay the acquisition of true social confidence. Carole Snow limits her children’s after-school computer time to one hour. “Then I send them out to play with the neighbours’ kids. At least this way I know they’re getting their quota of group play.”
|The Antisocial Brain
Sometimes social ineptitude may reflect more than a lack of social education. It is now widely believed that some children have a neurological impairment that hinders their ability to send and receive social signals.
The problem is most commonly called nonverbal learning disability (NLD). Among other characteristics of the disorder, sufferers have trouble processing nonverbal information such as body language, facial expression and tone of voice. They hear words but miss the subtleties of communication – the stuff that’s between the lines.
Stephen Nowicki, an Atlanta clinical psychologist and co-author of the book Helping the Child Who Doesn’t Fit In, calls this deficit “dyssemia.” He estimates about one in ten children has at least a mild form of it, even if they don’t have NLD. To help boost their weak social circuitry, Nowicki suggests turning on a TV sitcom, then muting the sound. Ask the child to try to figure out what’s going on by observing the characters’ faces. “It may be very hard for children with dyssemia to do this at first, but most improve over time,” he says.
Attention to NLD is increasing among school boards. Brian Ellerker, central coordinating principal of special education at the Toronto District School Board, says suspected NLD sufferers can be tested for the disorder. And many school boards now offer special programs for these children. “The instructor spends extra time teaching them how to read faces and decode other nonverbal cues,” says Ellerker.
The Power of Practice
Before a piano performance, a child may practise his pieces for weeks. But we rarely give children the opportunity to practise for big social challenges, which can loom as large as a Carnegie Hall recital in their minds.
Enter role-playing-what Pelletier calls the social equivalent of piano scales. If your child is anticipating a socially daunting situation-for instance, a school dance dominated by acid-tongued clique leaders-you can role-play how she might deal with barbs from such people. Charlene Giannetti and Margaret Sagarese, authors of the book Cliques, advise using humour whenever possible. For example:
Clique leader: “Nice hair, NOT.”
Possible response: “You should see me on a bad hair day.”
Children can also benefit from practising ordinary conversation, and the dinner table is a good place to do it. Instead of the tried-and-true clunker, “Did anything interesting happen in school today?” Kathy Lynn recommends you start with an amusing anecdote: “The funniest thing happened at work today…” This lets the child segue into his own anecdotes without feeling as though he’s on a witness stand.
No topic should be off-limits, adds Lynn, and telling jokes should be encouraged. “Being able to tell a joke reflects social competence,” Lynn says, “and there’s no better way to learn than by listening to others do it.”
Also be sure to practise talking with your child about feelings. Socially competent children can put feelings into words. “Ask a younger child how he would feel if his best friend got sick, and ask an older child how she would feel if her best friend started avoiding her,” Porath suggests.
Sometimes, as in Jeremy Lin’s case, children get stuck in a social rut because they have little in common with their peers. One solution is to link your child up with others who share his interests. Amy Lin enrolled Jeremy in a chess club, and science and computer camps. His awkwardness began melting away in the company of his true peers.
Grooming and attire count, too. When Carole Snow visited her ten-year-old son’s school, she discovered that his clothing wasn’t in step with his age. “I had been dressing him in cute things that were more appropriate for a younger child,” she says. “Seeing all the other boys in their hooded sweatshirts really brought this point home to me.”
Snow’s next stop was a children’s clothing store, where she stocked up on baggy pants, sweatshirts and a fleece vest for her son. Now, she says, “he looks more like a Grade 5 student. His clothing doesn’t put him at a social disadvantage anymore.”
Snow’s observations raise an important point: Can a parent influence a child’s social standing among peers? “I don’t think parents have the power to fix peer problems,” says Edmonton psychologist Bonnie Haave. “What the parent can do is help the child feel less anxious about the whole popularity scene.”
Psychologist Shirley Vandersteen cautions against trying to change your child’s basic nature in the course of teaching her how to be social. “Don’t expect your introvert to be the life of the party,” she says. “It’s perfectly fine if she just has two or three close friends.”
Ultimately, the best thing a parent can do is to teach by example. Amy Lin showed Jeremy how to behave through her own interactions-at the park, on the phone, in the school yard. Slowly but surely, a more socially confident Jeremy began to emerge.
Jeremy is now thriving in a public-school program for gifted children. When Amy drops him off, other children run up to greet him-something that never happened before. “I used to worry that the social thing would never fall into place for him,” she reflects. “It’s nice to know that a child with a slow start socially can still build up his skills.”
|Ten Ways You Can Help Your Child Make Friends at School
By Kathy Lynn
Don’t push or panic
Support extracurricular activities
Put food in their lunch-box that’s easy to share.
Make your home welcoming
Organize social events
Be a driver
Problem-solve with your child.
Observe your child
Recruit the teacher
Of course, you may discover that she’s doing just fine at school and just hasn’t told you about her school social life.
Kathy Lynn is a Vancouver radio show host, columnist and parenting expert. For more information and to contact Ms, Lynn, visit her web site at www.parentingtoday.ca
ILLUSTRATION: © CATHERINE LEPAGE