I grew up being a military kid. This meant moves every three years, new schools, new friends, new houses. I don't remember it being hard to make new friends and I certainly don't remember having a hard time in school with making friends, or joining a peer group, at least not in elementary school. Fast forward thirty or so years... we aren't in the military, but we certainly live in a transient area. I have the kids involved in team sports, swim, music lessons, and yes, we homeschool, but my kids have plenty of times to socialize and make friends.
So, why is it so hard? Imagine my surprise when I tell my girls to go make friends at the pool, or outside, I get the clueless-blank-stare back at me? I don't want to be insensitive toward them, so I try to not feel exasperated, but isn't it, like, inherent in our DNA to know how to do this? Well, I can answer that on behalf of shy kids, and spectrum-y kids: the answer is no. What surprises me, though, is the lack of social situation navigation awareness of all kids-across the board. What can I do, as a parent to help the situation? I don't think hovering over them, and rescuing them from all awkward situations is the answer, but this is something that's been on my brain a lot recently, and I've come up with a few answers (humbly, from my experience). Confidence. Praise. Self-esteem.
Self-esteem is a beautiful thing. Confidence, poise, and positivity are so important for our children to grasp, don't you think? I don't know any parent that wants their child to be anything less than self-confident, in fact. A positive sense of self is probably even one of the main predictors of success in life.
I think that as parents we have a great responsibility for raising our kids. I'm not talking about just having kids, and living with kids, but it is imperative that we raise them. Kindness, courage, respect, compassion: these are the basic manners, characteristics, if you will, that seem to be both necessary, and lacking amongst our youth. Maybe we (parents) have produced some over-confident children by praising things based on performance, but forgetting to praise the stuff of the everyday, such as sharing, being inclusive, and helping others to clean, or do chores.
My experience growing up with just one brother was so different than the family of three children I'm raising today. We (my brother and I) didn't stay inside, we didn't have a computer, we walked to and from school (with same aged friends, not with parents), we rode bikes to the Jiffy Mart to get candy and comics. I wonder how much my kids are missing out on? I'm not talking from a play-outside-have-less-technology standpoint, though. I'm thinking about making and keeping friends, communication, manners, and being able to navigate social circles in a non-classroom environment.
My youngest is on the swim team in our neighborhood for the summer. I am actually very pleased with how this venue teaches sportsmanship, cheering on of team-mates, and self confidence. I think any team sport does that, actually, because my middle daughter had a similar, great experience with lacrosse Within the context of participating with their teams, the kids all seem to be encouraging and kind. Here is what I notice, though: once the kids are off the field, or away from the pool, “teamwork” stops. Some girls have secrets, some have smartphones Some kids could and do play together, but a lot of kids sit alone It's heartbreaking to watch school age children be so compartmentalized. It's heartbreaking to watch a child be excluded. And goodness, that goes for the swim (and/or team, dance, etc) parents, too!
It's easy to praise our kids' performances. It's an objective thing to watch a child score a goal or swim a good time and say, “great job!” I know, for me, I need to be more diligent praising the times they sit by someone who is sitting alone, and the times they are confident to join a group of kids if they are feeling alone.
Confidence. Confidence based not on performance, but confidence based on who they are. Positive praise that validates character traits like integrity and kindness and compassion go long way to encourage a child to be more confident to include and join others. I know we (parents) are raising our kids, our families in challenging times. I'm really thinking that technology, while great, is truly causing our kids to forget to interact with one another with language and face time (not Facetime, mind you). Face-to-face time. Also, this is vital to help kids, especially shy, socially-awkward kids, to join in already formed ‘cliques’. I'm discovering that teaching kindness is a little more straightforward than teaching confidence and friend building skills. My kids are currently reading devotions and character and confidence building stories at our house. I'm reading the same types of books, myself. Every little bit of wisdom helps, right?
So let us encourage one another and our kids with some positive praise! Here is how that might look:
“Way to go!”
“I love it when you get along with your siblings!”
“Great job asking that kid to join in on your game!”
“Those girls look like they are having fun, how about asking if they have room for one more?”
“I love it when you find a way to include others in your playtime.”
“Thanks for helping your friend/brother/sister feel important today. It makes me so happy when you are kind to others”
Kids and parents, alike, love to feel validated and valued. Hugs, high-fives, and praise go a long, long way to help us make the world a better place. I think we can all agree that kindness and dialogue are more important than ever in these years of raising the future.
Rise up, and parent on!