Recently, in the grocery store, I had the opportunity to witness the reaction of a young boy as his mother said hello to a co-worker of hers. The five-year-old instantly piped up and said hello to the stranger, not shying away from the presence of a new person. I was impressed with the level of relational and emotional intelligence this boy already had at his age. He was not afraid of building new relationships. In fact, he was excited about them. His social skills were far beyond what I’ve seen in many kids over the last year.
Parents often get so caught up in their children’s academic achievements that they forget to focus on emotional intelligence and social skills. One of the most important of these skills is relational intelligence. A relationally intelligent child is good at relating to others and building relationships with them. Relational intelligence is critical to learn early on and will carry with a child for the rest of their lives, even into adulthood and the workforce.
For a child to be relationally intelligent, they must have five characteristics. Let’s take a look at each characteristic individually. I’ll just scratch the surface of each here. To unpack each characteristic in greater detail, and to learn how you can develop these in your children, be sure to read a copy of my book The Relationally Intelligent Child.
5 Characteristics of Relationally Intelligent Children
1. Secure Attachment
Attachment begins the moment you bring your kids home from the hospital. The relationship between you and your child is the first relationship your kids will build. But what is attachment in the first place? Attachment means that when your kids reach out to have their physical, emotional, and mental needs met, someone is there to reach back and provide those things for them. It occurs in safe and secure places.
For many kids today, this doesn’t happen. Kids in our society are the most protected but are the least parented. Screen attachment and social media have created huge deficits in face-to-face relationships and impact how much time parents spend interacting with their kids.
2. Fearless Exploration
Kids that are well-attached to their parents have an easier time exploring the world. Kids start to explore the world between ages one and two, and giving them the freedom and encouragement to do so is critical.
In the 1970s, Mary Ainsworth performed the Strange Situation Study. The study involved toddlers. A mother would bring her child into an unfamiliar room and then leave. After a short period of time, the mom would return and then leave again. The process of her returning and leaving was repeated a few times. Kids who were more securely attached to their parents behaved differently than kids who were not well attached. The securely attached kids quickly figured out their mom would come back. By the second time the mom left the room, the kids had begun to explore the room. Children who were not securely attached, however, did not choose to explore their new surroundings.
Kids not only need to know how to explore the world around them, but they need to know how to explore another person. This involves learning how to discover another person’s likes, dislikes, thoughts, beliefs, and personality, and learning to build a relationship with him or her. Having the ability to explore and learn another person is an important characteristic in having social and emotional intelligence skills and a huge step toward relational intelligence.
3. Unwavering Resilience
Kids can begin to learn resilience as early as ages one and two. Their ability to be resilient at such an early stage will impact them into adulthood. It is important to teach kids that if they fall down, they can get back up.
As parents, it’s often tempting to move all of the obstacles out of our kids’ way. However, if we remove any challenges they face, they will need less resilience and will not have the opportunity to learn it.
For example, think of the human body’s immune system. For it to stay strong, it must face colds, cases of flu, and other infections. By overcoming those minor viruses and infections, it strengthens itself to face larger diseases later and, hopefully, overcome them. If we removed all viruses and bacteria, our bodies would no longer have the ability to fight them and strengthen themselves. Then, when a major virus comes along, we would have little chance in the fight against it.
Similarly, our kids need to learn how to pick themselves up and be resilient in the smaller things, so that when big challenges face them later in life, they have learned how to be resilient. Resilience is a key element in emotional and relational intelligence.
4. Wise Decision-Making
Kids begin to really grasp decision-making skills at around age four or five. This is the age where kids begin to move from concrete observations to abstract reasoning. As kids begin to explore the world and start making choices, they are going to fall. They are going to fail. One of the best ways to learn how to make wise decisions is by making a few poor ones first. Kids need to learn early and often what results will come around by making certain choices. Parents have the unique opportunity to guide and show them how to make better decisions the next time around.
Making wise decisions can be a huge step in emotional and relational intelligence. Wise decision-making can help our kids choose friends and mentors who will be good influences in their lives and who will help them grow in their relationships with others and with Christ.
5. Future-Focused Service
Around age six, kids begin to learn how to plan for the future. They also become more observant about the needs of others around this stage in life. The more our kids have their own internal needs met at this point, the more able and willing they will be to help others who have needs around them.
Being able to build relationships with others through service is a huge characteristic of kids who have strong relational intelligence skills. Creating opportunities for your kids to serve others — whether it be in the church, doing yard work for a neighbor, getting groceries for a friend — can help strengthen their emotional and relational intelligence and create a servant’s heart for the rest of their lives.
Ways to Develop Social and Emotional Intelligence Skills in Kids
Now that we’ve discussed the characteristics of kids who have emotional and relational intelligence, you may be wondering how you can develop these skills in your own kids. Here are a few ways to get started:
1. Developing Emotional Intelligence Skills Together
First of all, it’s important to make sure your kids know you are in this with them. Not only do you support their growth in emotional and relational intelligence, but you are constantly growing in those areas as well.
Scientists did a study a few years ago called the “High Hill Study.” People were instructed to stand at the base of a tall mountain and give their assessment of how tall, steep, and difficult the hill would be to climb. In every instance, if a person’s loved one stood beside them at the base of the hill, the perception of its size and climbing difficulty decreased.
Creating these characteristics in your kids is, in some way, like that hill. The best place to start is by encouraging them with your words. My mother struggled with rheumatoid arthritis for many years. While she couldn’t be there to stand next to me for many of my challenges in life, the words that she planted in my heart over the years were what stuck with me and encouraged me.
2. Face-to-Face Interaction
Next, make sure your kids have plenty of opportunities to interact with others face-to-face. The less in-person interaction a child has the more their social skills atrophy. Empathy is not passed through mirror neutrons in screens and devices. This causes kids to have a difficult time learning to empathize with others. Over the last year and a half, due to Covid-19, we’ve seen relational and social skills begin to lag in our kids. Be intentional about setting up consistent playdates with at least one friend. Introduce your kids to new people as often as possible.
3. Encourage Peer Relationships
Peer relationships also play a significant role in relational intelligence. The number of relationships and friendships, especially among boys, has dramatically dropped in the last year and a half. Girls especially thrive on having social interactions with others. Having in-person interactions with others, rather than on-screen, can dramatically help kids build friendships and relationships and improve their perspective on life.
4. Measuring Progress
In my book, The Relationally Intelligent Child, there is an instrument that Dr. Dewey Wilson and I created to understand where kids of different ages are in terms of relational intelligence and social skills. This tool will help you get a baseline for where your kids are right now. I also encourage parents to take the adult version to see where they are and where they can improve. Consistently measuring the progress of you and your child’s development of relational and emotional intelligence skills can help encourage you as you both grow in that area.
Emotional and relational intelligence is one of the most critical, yet often overlooked, areas of development in our children. These five characteristics can help you succeed in developing relational intelligence and social skills in your kids and will help your kids when building relationships. Doing this can have a positive impact on them for the rest of their lives.