4 Best Ways To Raise Children With Social Intelligence

“What parents teach is themselves, as models of what is human – by their moods, their reactions, their facial expressions and actions. These are the real things parents need to be aware of, and of how they affect their children. Allow them to know you, and it might become easier for them to learn about themselves.”      – Magda Gerber

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 practices that build 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…

At last! I’ve created the No Bad Kids Master Course to give you all the tools and perspective you need to not only understand  and respond effectively to your children’s behavior but also build positive, respectful, relationships with them for life! Check out all the details at nobadkidscourse.com. ♥

You might also be interested in these posts:

The S Word (Toddlers Learning To Share)

You’ll Be Sorry – Children And Apologies

What To Do About A Toddler Toy Taker

The Baby Social Scene – 5 Hints For Creating Safe And Joyful Playgroups

Falling – A Lesson In Friendship, Forgiveness And Moving On by Lisa Sunbury, Regarding Baby

(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!)


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. This is an important post Janet. I can’t recall who said it, but there’s a great line that goes something like: “Children may often fail to do what we say, but they never fail to imitate us.”

    Thank you.

  2. Not interfering is so hard. I’m only now getting to the phase where I’m feeling the urge to meddle. My 16 month old is suddenly quite possessive of toys and resorts regularly to screaming at other toddlers and shaking her finger at them.

    Speaking of which, I was surprised to see my tiny baby shake her finger at me with quite the angry face. It was a wake up call for me, I noticed (for the first time) that I do a lot of finger shaking when I’m irritated. Just like my dad did. Ooops. Now I’m extremely careful about how I behave in front of her.

    1. Kay, I love your recognition of the finger shaking…priceless! 🙂

      I understand how hard it is not to interfere when you see the possessiveness. It’s a normal phase that the majority of toddlers go through…and your daughter is asserting herself effectively, so that’s good. Anyway, screaming and shaking her finger is a lot more gracious than pushing or hitting…but those would be normal, too. Hang in there!

  3. This is great. Great tip with the ‘that fall scared you’. It makes sense not to say that. Will change it.


  4. Anne Simon says:

    I really appreciate this post and think it is very important to realize that it is in the everyday common things we do as parents that we most influence our children’s social development. I am now taking care of my 90 year old mother who has dementia. I still see myself reacting and showing habits I saw in her as a child. No matter how hard we try, we do become like those who took care of us as young children. No pressure, but it does speak to “conscious parenting” as an important concept. Thanks for your sensitive post.

  5. Love this post. Great knowledge dropping on conscious, intentional, compassionate parenting.

    Just had a text exchange w/my own teen daughter about owning the way we walk through the world and how fast a “request can turn into a demand” (parent or child) without seeing needs through a spherical lens. (e.g. The world is a sphere, spheres have no ‘sides’ thus we are all on the same side…it’s how it’s positioned and imparted)

    Def a piece of social intelligence that comes in handy when the goin gets rough in teen years…;-) Thanks so much for all you do.

  6. Excellent post, Janet. Four great examples of how to “play position” letting the challenges be the children’s challenges.
    I partcularly like your approach to conflict. It’s “Let’s get good at conflict” rather than “Good people don’t conflict.”

    1. Thank you, Rick. Always wonderful to hear your feedback.

    1. But we can change our tune at any time, Jennifer. Our children are open, accepting and highly adaptable.

  7. Elanne Kresseer says:

    Hey Janet — a question for you. I’m wondering how children who have been raised with RIE treat younger children? As in when a RIE baby becomes a 5, 6, 7 year old do they treat young children and babies differently than a non-RIE raised baby would?

    The reason I ask is that I’ve watched a lot of older kids interact with my daughter now and it’s often hard for me. When she was a baby I often had to tell older girls that she wasn’t a doll and that it was important to ask her permission to pick her up, move her around etc. I was often aghast at how rough and tuned out they seemed when they interacted with her. Then the other day a six year old was playing with a ball that my daughter was very interested in and I was a little shocked at how unwilling she was to even let her get close to have a look at the ball. Then when my daughter said “mama” another seven year old nearby sternly said, “I’m not your mama.”

    I just did my RIE thing and sports casted and my daughter seemed totally fine in it all. I guess I just hope that when she is older she will treat little ones with more respect and more kindness. I’ve been in other cultures where older children do a lot of caretaking with babies and where the whole culture has an ethic of including the littlest ones and I would like to see more it around me!

    As always would love to hear your thoughts.

    1. Elanne, great question. When we respect our children, they accept respect as the norm and this becomes their instinctive way to treat others. There are children who adore babies, but have learned through their own experiences and their parents’ modeling to view babies as objects. They really can’t be blamed! As you can imagine, this perception gets passed down through generations.

      I’ve had the experiences you describe…and tried to limit my children’s exposure to those people, but I also knew that my husband and I had by far the most influence, so I didn’t go too crazy.

      So, to answer your question, children raised with the RIE Approach see differently and therefore behave differently. When my children hear adults speaking to children in a sing-song voice or baby talk, or see them moving babies around like cute “things” rather than people, it stands out for them as being very strange and inauthentic. It would never occur to them to treat a baby as less than a whole person. (BUT, this doesn’t always hold true with their younger siblings, because these relationships are fraught with an intense mix of emotions and the impulse to control or manipulate is certainly there!)

  8. Thanks for this post, it is what I try to remember and you wrote it so well. My husband and I are huge fans of slapstick diversions in power struggles, though, letting it morph into nonsense seems a good way to handle power struggles. But this post was a great reminder not to use the slapstick too often. On a separate note, I would have loved to see something on enjoying what you do with your kids. To me finding that Venn diagram overlap between what I think is cool and they think is cool is everything. Right now we have 3D puzzles, baking and Pixar movies in the shaded area. Thanks again, Rachel

  9. Clare Caro says:

    A great article Janet, thank you.

  10. Ideageorge says:

    I love how the woman connected with the girl’s fear as her foot got stuck. Also, she was very tuned in to the dialogue between the two toddlers.

  11. Hi Janet,

    Excellent article. Thank you! I have just come across RIE and my LO is already 3.5 years. We’re noticing an increasing amount of anti-social behaviour such as: not wanting to play with the other kids at day care or when we’re at a park, getting upset if a kid sits next to him at the lunch table, crying if someone takes something from him (even if he’s not holding it or using it), “shutting down” if he doesn’t want to do something, being too shy or embarrassed to address when he hurts another kid, and telling us that none of the kids want to play with him.

    We feel like his perception is that the other kids are mean, but he says equally mean things to the other kids, too, and he doesn’t want to engage with them. At home he’s a totally different person and all he wants to do is play (as long as it’s what he wants to do). We’re at a loss for how to help him. Both my husband and I have had social issues and we fear that he will have the same. We’re in the process of seeking out play therapy, but do you have any ideas of what we could do at home? I think a lot of it has to do with how he’s interpreting the peer rejection and the behaviours that he’s exhibiting towards the other kids.

    Thank you so much for your help.

  12. At what age do children become attached to preschool friends? I ask because we are planning to move my almost 3yr old to a new school next month (the school allows more fredom of exploration and more outdoor time than her current school). She has been at her current school for 7 months – she gets along with the other children but doesn’t really have a ‘best’ friend. The majority of the students in her new class will be turning 4 before the fall and will be moving onto the next room. Does a child at this age become very attached such that this might cause her significant distress? To-date she has been a fairly easy going/friendly child – I’m worried about interferring with her social connections but do think a less structured environment will allow her to follow her own interests. I’d appreciate any thoughts you have on this.

  13. Hi Janet,

    I just wanted to thank you for sharing the video of the toddlers and the blue box. Amazing how calm that interaction was. I assume it’s because both the girls’ feelings were acknowledged?

    1. Hi Mary! Acknowledging definitely helps but, to be honest, I believe they were calm because neither I nor the parents get anxious in these situations. We try to take off our adult lenses and see a process, rather than a problem that needs to be fixed. Children sense our anxiety and tend to feed off of it.

  14. this is a great article! I am trying hard to figure out how to handle my 15 month son who has become a toy taker which serves him well in his daycare environment with a couple bigger boys but can sometimes be rough with my friends babies who are younger. I am not sure how to intervene without having to interrupt his play time constantly…

  15. I use this technique often in my program, and i am getting better at it as time goes on. I currently have a taker of things and it can make for a rough morning, however, I am hopeful with time and patience he will move past this and things will be peaceful again.

  16. I love all your posts Janet. I’ve become a better parent since reading and absorbing your advice. The one problem I have is this: what if you feel you got it completely wrong with your first child…where to from there. My eldest daughter is 10 and whilst I’ve been mindful of the way I talk and act over the past 12 months, it is clear that my relationship with her has been affected by my parenting style. How do I start to repair the damage I have caused by being a disrespectful parent.

    1. Katherine says:

      Janet, please do address this. My daughters are almost 7.

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