Of all the skills we encourage our children to develop, social intelligence may be the most essential for predicting a fulfilling, successful life. It’s also the aspect of development parents influence most profoundly, and it’s crucial that we’re aware of that, because our every word, move and gesture are being studied…We’re the ones under the microscope, modeling everything we do and say. And surely this is the best motivation in the universe to be our most gracious, socially adaptive selves, and to heal old wounds by doing it “better” than it was done for us.
Magda Gerber taught me strategies for building a strong foundation for social intelligence in the infant and toddler years…
1. Don’t wait to communicate. Begin a two-way, person-to-person relationship with your baby as soon as she’s born. Speak respectfully. Don’t talk down. Whenever we speak to our babies, they are learning language, so we should model the language we want our child to learn.
Babies are capable of communication and comprehension way before they utter recognizable words. Tell your newborn what you will do before you pick her up or set her down again, even though it feels awkward to talk to someone who can’t talk back (or even indicate understanding). Soon they will… If you ask babies questions, they will begin to find a way to answer. Once you begin this habit, you won’t ever want to stop treating your child this way. And you’ll find out in a year or two that she’s been right there with you all along.
Give your baby a moment to take in your words. Observe her so that you can see her communicate readiness back to you. Telling your baby how much you adore her is great, but show your love by sharing the details about her life she’s eager to hear. Tell her what is happening right now and what will happen next. Invite her to participate in diaper changes, bathing and feeding, interact with you as much as she’s capable of doing. You’ll be surprised by how clearly she can communicate if you open the door.
Take a moment to look and listen before assuming her needs, even when she cries. She needs to know that her efforts to communicate are welcome, noted, and that you’ll try your best to understand.
2. Be a top model
Model honest, direct, open and polite communication. Be the first to admit “I’m sorry, I made a mistake” (even with babies). Be a patient, attuned listener. If you argue with someone in front of your child, try to resolve the disagreement gracefully… or at least resolve it. Then acknowledge in simple terms to your child what happened, especially if the child seems disturbed. Model patience, forgiveness, sharing, empathy– the social traits you wish for your child.
Whenever it seems appropriate, share your feelings (“I’m feeling sad thinking about Grandpa being sick”). Children sense when we’re disturbed anyway, and they appreciate the clarification.
Encourage children to understand their feelings, not by assuming “That fall scared you,“ (because you might not be accurate) but rather by probing, “Are you all right? You seem upset. Were you hurt? Startled?”
3. Keep it real
When we understand that we are immensely powerful models for our children, it is easy to see why discipline techniques that include distraction, tricks, games, rewards and punishments don’t foster social intelligence. Instead, those methods encourage children to do what we’re doing — avoiding confrontation, being inauthentic by smiling and playing games when we’re annoyed, manipulating (however kindly) in order to control, shaming and (in the case of spanking) hurting those we are in conflict with, rather than being direct and respectful, clear, gentle and honest.
The lessons we try to instill, no matter what methods we use or how effective they seem, will always be trumped by the behavior we are modeling moment to moment. The audience is listening.
Also, the self-worth and confidence children need to develop healthy social skills is undermined when we are manipulative, insincere, shaming or punitive. As they mature, the way we treat our children is, deep down, the best they will ever expect or believe they deserve.
4. Provide opportunities for practice, practice, practice
The intricacies of social interactions take plenty of practice to learn. Most of us spend our whole lives learning but never mastering them. So give babies a head start by allowing them to interact with their peers as freely as is safely possible. Babies are fascinated by other babies and ready to begin learning about each other at just a few months of age.
Children learn social skills organically when we abandon preconceptions about play, support but don’t interfere, observe closely and sensitively. Just as our baby’s “solo play” choices can be surprising, infant and toddler interactions seldom look like “playing together”.
But try to imagine ways babies can play together…there aren’t many. They usually play by touching each other, taking or (more rarely) giving toys (whether the other child wants them or not) and imitating. Imitating, unless it’s a loud chorus of crying, doesn’t usually worry parents, but the first two do.
Sensitive observation is paramount to understanding when and how to intervene gently so that children are not hurt and so that we don’t interrupt and discourage interaction.
Here’s a very brief example of social interaction that doesn’t look so good to grown-ups, but (believe it or not) is playing and learning together infant style.
As infants become toddlers, there will usually be more conflicts between them. Allowing children to experience and resolve these age-appropriate conflicts is a phenomenal way for them to learn social intelligence. You might say “You are both trying to hold the bear”, while blocking any hitting or pushing and saying “I won’t let you hit.” Acknowledging all feelings during and after the conflict helps calm children and fosters empathy, while encouraging them to understand and label their feelings.
“The more we trust they can solve, the more they do learn to solve.” – Gerber
Here’s another video I posted recently that demonstrates two toddlers’ abilities to solve conflicts.
Remember that even while children are focused on each other, we’re still modeling (no, we don’t ever get a break, it’s always show time.). For example, interventions that aren’t gentle while we demand “Be gentle!” don’t teach gentleness.
Through observation we notice that as toddlers grow and play evolves, children will sometimes need assistance when they are not in danger of being hurt. Older toddlers might routinely take toys or disrupt another child’s play to signal to adults that they need our help, and it’s best to stop them gently, but decisively. “Molly was using that. I won’t let you take it away. Please wait until she’s done.” Then, if the child cries, “I know you wanted to use that and Molly said no. That’s upsetting.”
Often children will release pent-up feelings when we set these kinds of limits. Encourage and acknowledge them.
For more about selective interventions with infants and toddlers, you might want to check out…
My new book: NO BAD KIDS: Toddler Discipline Without Shame
(I love the photo up top. These 3 year olds and their parents attended one of my weekly RIE Parent/Infant Guidance Classes for two years. This photo was taken when they reunited at a mutual friend’s birthday party after not seeing each other for a year. Note the adults admiring them respectfully from afar. The boy’s mom joked that they‘re planning the wedding!)
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