Raising Socially Competent Kids

A boy and girl enjoying their electronic devices separately
James Gerhold

No doubt you have seen your kids with their eyes glued to a computer screen, television or mobile device. And you may have wondered how technology is affecting them. The moving pictures on television, in video games and in apps are extremely stimulating, and a child's brain is particularly sensitive.

In fact, you might say that those brains are made of plastic. Brains can change and adapt to what they are exposed to, a concept known as neural plasticity. Brain connections can be strengthened by use or weakened through neglect — the "use it or lose it" principle, according to Dr. Jay Giedd from the National Institute of Mental Health.

With increased screen use, the neural connections used for listening and learning, concentration and conversation are often neglected. Furthermore, kids who heavily use technology become "wired" to use their gadgets to communicate instead of talking face to face with people.

Social skills are not built on a phone or computer. They must be practiced in real life, beginning in the home, where loving parents model what healthy relationships look like. Yes, technology is here to stay, and you'll likely find positive ways to utilize screens and gadgets in your family. These are amazing days when families can keep connected over long distances with photos, videos and instant messages. But if you don't minimize and counter the influence of screens in your family's life, when your son finally meets those relatives face to face, he may not know how to simply sit and visit.

As you work to build a home where children are shaped by real relationships, focus on these five critical social skills:

Affection

It's ironic that an electronic device that connects us to people around the world can also work simultaneously to separate us. Kids can grow more attached to their devices than to friends, teachers and relatives. Family members who share an address often live separately in their own electronic worlds. The result is that we're becoming much less affectionate toward each other.

We have a daily golden opportunity to model affection to our children — through a hug, a conversation, clearing the dishes together, or taking a jaunt to the ice-cream shop. Don't let these opportunities slip by! Tell stories to your kids, make things together and pursue conversation every day. Listen actively and respond with empathy.

It's our job to fill our children's emotional "tanks" with the affection they need to fuel them through the challenging days of childhood and adolescence. Spending two hours playing a video game cannot add fuel to a child's emotional tank.

While you are with your child, be all there. Your child will learn from your example. He will see that people who are physically present deserve more attention than digital connections.

Appreciation

"Thank you!" These two little words add depth to every relationship. But a heart of gratitude doesn't come naturally. Your child must be taught. Too often, children become accustomed to a screen-driven world of instant gratification, and they begin to expect real life to follow suit. Indeed, the greatest obstacle to an attitude of thankfulness is indulgence. The most bored, ungrateful children in the world are teenagers whose parents have given them everything they wanted.

Teach your children to wait for what they want. Sometimes they may have to wait until they earn enough money or until they are old enough to have a particular toy or device. But they'll enjoy a toy or game more if they have waited for it and worked hard to earn it.

Young children can begin practicing appreciation by saying thank you for meals and new toys and time spent with a friend. As they grow, they can write thank-you notes and bake cookies for teachers.

Look for ways to thank your spouse and children every day. If saying thank you becomes a way of life in your home, your children will move into the world being grateful for what other people do for them. Training your child to think, speak and even text gratefully begins at home.

Anger management

Just as kids must be taught to tie shoes or ride a bicycle, so must they learn how to handle anger. Unfortunately, with increased screen time for families, many teaching opportunities pass by. And, as many parents observe, video games and television often increase a child's impatience and inability to deal with emotions. How can we help our children develop constructive ways of processing anger? Start by listening. If your child is screaming, calmly ask questions and listen intently; let your child express anger. Concentrate on the reason your child is angry, not on the way he is expressing it. If he thinks he was wronged, the anger will not go away until he feels you have heard and understood the complaint.

Of course, yelling is never an appropriate way to handle anger. But your first concern is to hear your child.

Later, discuss healthier ways to share feelings. If parents do not first seek to understand what the child is feeling, the child's anger will be internalized. Over time, this shows up in behavior.

A child's anger is often distorted — rooted in a perceived wrong rather than a definitive wrong. Aim to determine the validity of the anger by asking yourself: What wrong was committed? and Am I sure I have all the facts? Have him count to 100 to help him cool down. Then, ask him to complete the sentence, "I am angry because ______."

Guide the child through the details of the episode and brainstorm healthy ways to respond. Each time you walk your child through this process, he becomes more mature in processing his anger.

Apologizing

For the sake of convenience, many teens and even adults use electronic devices to do the work of apologizing. This helps them avoid awkward situations, but they often become unable to conduct difficult conversations. In trivial matters, a text message may work fine for things like "Mom, sorry I forgot to feed cat. Can u do it?" But we need to teach children how to apologize in the real world, face to face.

As in much of parenting, this starts with showing kids what a proper apology looks like. If a child hears Dad apologizing to Mom because he raised his voice at her and then hears Mom forgive him, that's a powerful lesson. And parents who sincerely apologize to children not only demonstrate what an apology looks like but also increase the child's respect for the parent.

Help your kids fully understand the foundational importance of an apology, how it begins with internally accepting responsibility for our wrongdoing and resisting the tendency to blame others. Show them that there are expectations for behavior in the home and in society, and that our choices affect how other people feel about us. Hurtful words or actions push people away, and without apology, those relationships become strained.

Attention

Have you ever marveled at how a child can sit for long stretches of time mesmerized by a screen, yet often lose focus after a few minutes in a real conversation or working on a chore? The way we consume media has changed the way we pay attention. We are compelled to scroll and tap and consume an ever-broadening spectrum of content. We can always navigate elsewhere if something gets boring. Information is instantly available — a bit different from asking a parent, grandparent or friend for help.

Screen time conditions your child to have unrealistic expectations for the real world — that every interaction will be interesting, instant and immediately rewarding. How can we counter this trend? Start by raising a reader. Reading is a foundational skill for all children, and it helps them develop focus by being engaged in a single thought process. While reading, children learn to stay with one topic and absorb something deeply.

Play is also essential to cognitive development in children. Playtime isn't video game time; it's time to shoot a basketball or play hopscotch. Being outdoors is especially healthy for the brain. Studies show that time spent outdoors close to nature fosters greater attentiveness and stronger memory — brains actually become calmer and more focused.

You can also boost your child's ability to pay attention through nurturing their "attention muscles." Practice long conversations with questions and though ul replies. Eye contact is essential! Teaching children to make eye contact helps them pay attention to the person at hand. When you insist upon eye contact and give it generously, you help your child focus relationally on others, even increasing his ability for empathy.

Children can learn to pay attention, even in the absence of stimuli, rewards or entertainment. What psychologist William James wrote in the 1800s is still relevant today: "The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character and will."

Your child's ability to pay attention — and to demonstrate all of these critical social skills — is not simply a matter of academics or family life or relationships with friends. Indeed, it is a matter of the heart.

Dr. Gary Chapman is a family counselor, radio host and author of several books, including "The Five Love Languagesseries. Arlene Pellicane is a speaker and the author of the "31 Daysseries.

If you enjoyed this article, you might also like:

"Did You Make Any Friends Today?" by Karen Gauvrea

31 Days to Becoming a Happy Mom by Arlene Pellicane

The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman

Focus on the Family magazine

This first appeared in the December 2014/January 2015 issue of Thriving Family magazine. If you enjoyed this article, read more like it in Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine. Get it delivered to your home by subscribing for a gift of any amount.
Portions of this article were adapted from Growing Up Social: Raising relational kids in a screen-driven world. Copyright © 2014 by Gary Chapman and Arlene Pellicane. Used with permission of Moody Publishers. 

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