Social Savvy: Tips for Raising Confident Children

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Every parent wants his or her child to build a satisfying social life. But turning your tiny (or not-so-tiny) bundle of joy into a social butterfly comes with its share of challenges: Connecting with other families, planning preschool playdates, choosing the right social activities for grade-schoolers and encouraging tech-happy teens to interact — sans screens. Here are some expert tips for raising a confidently connected kid.

Ages 0-4

Social Cues

Newborns spend most of their time eating and sleeping, but they’re also developing important social skills, says Randi S. Rubenstein, executive director of Education for Successful Parenting in Raleigh. “Right from birth, parents are cultivating their infant’s social skills. Are the parents responsive? Gentle? Calm? This is a baby’s first introduction to their social world.” As a baby’s first models, parents help shape a child’s beliefs and expectations about social interactions, even set the tone for how a child will navigate future relationships, she notes. Treating young children as people deserving of respect helps pave the way for respectful social relationships in the future. This means giving children space to express their feelings, responding to their cues and allowing them to make choices.

Parents can help expand a toddler’s or preschooler’s primitive social skills through participation in group activities such as community programs, library storytimes, and Mommy and Me groups. Joint participation is key, Rubenstein says.

Ages 5-12

Club Connection

Elementary school brings more social opportunities than ever before with sports, after-school activities and clubs beckoning. School-age children expand their social skill set along with their social circle, and they’re often ready for an organized club or activity, says Kathleen Rotella, principal of St. Mark’s Episcopal School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “In these types of settings, children learn a number of social lessons quickly: Taking turns, sharing, patience, respect, listening, talking positively about others and friendliness.”

During the elementary years, children can explore group activities like scouting, music, dance, theater, chess club and faith-based groups, Rubenstein says. “These types of clubs and activities are rich in life lessons about team participation and group dynamics, and can be a springboard for cultivating new friendships.

Parents can support social growth by arranging playdates, modeling good manners and sportsmanship, and helping children reflect on what went wrong when things go awry.

Ages 13-18

Text Hex

Teens are notoriously social, but these days, they’re more likely to be glued to a screen than to a best pal’s side. According to researchers at the University of Arizona, teens send an average of 114 text messages per day. That’s troubling, because face-to-face relationships provide lessons in trust and empathy that can’t be replicated electronically. “During the teen years, the ability to develop healthy peer relationships becomes vitally important to a teen’s self-esteem and well-being,” Rubenstein says.

Opening your home to your children’s friends after school, planning movie nights and sleepovers, and inviting friends to dinner with the family offers opportunities to build face-to-face relationships and polish social skills. Parents can observe interactions and offer guidance.

“Parents should listen and offer support without criticism,” Rubenstein says. “Although teens are exploring new freedoms, these mature discussions with parents can serve as their touchstone as they learn how to navigate socially in the world.”

Malia Jacobson is a nationally published health journalist and mom of three.

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