How to Teach Social Skills: Enjoying Your Children in Public
How do your children behave in public places? Do you cringe at the idea of going to the store with them? What about church? Or an extended family event? What about when you are on the phone? Or at the park talking to a friend? Do you already know if your children are with you an uninterrupted conversation will be impossible? Do your children ignore others who greet them?
We have all seen it, and possibly experienced it with our own children. A friend of yours goes up to your child and says “hello”. Your child doesn’t respond and may even ignore them. Have you ever greeted a young child only to have them turn away from you, or ignore your attempts to engage in a conversation? Or come up to you and state that they want something, with no manners? So, if this sounds like you, be ready to learn a few things that can help!
Does it really have to be this way? Is that just the thing to expect with children? NO. It definitely doesn’t have to be this way and it is definitely NOT the thing to expect with children… who have been trained to understand how to behave socially.
You can teach your children to behave in public and to greet and respond to others in a polite manner, prefer others ahead of themselves, say “please”, “thank you”, “excuse me” --- and like it! Very young children do not yet grasp the concept of their reputation with others. While they are still very immature, they think only of what they want at the moment. Some of the training we have already discussed in “Be the MOM: How to Take Charge” and “Creating Calm in Your Child: No More Bedtime Battles” will already be teaching your children to think of others. To realize they are not the center of the universe and that they do not get everything they want when they want it.
It is true that as moms, we are anxious to show love and devotion to our children. This desire can cause us to indulge them in bad behavior without even realizing it. This is another reason why being the mature parent (as discussed in “Be the MOM”) is so important when training up a child in the way he should go. The key concept for a child to understand is: They are not the center of all things. It is up to you, as a mom, to make sure they get that. My daughter mentioned she saw a funny gif that was of a child holding a globe and circling it around their own head to show they were the center of the universe! But, truthfully, isn’t that the way many children act? As the mom, you need to be sure they understand this is not the case. Your child’s understanding of the world around them and the idea that they should willingly put others before themselves will transform them from being an unhappy, selfish and demanding child to a happy, helpful, and obedient young person.
Some may worry that they will not have self-esteem or will feel neglected or unimportant. We have been told that each child is special and unique! So why would we then tell them that they don’t come first or that they don’t matter? It isn’t at all that they don’t matter. It is that they are not the center of the universe and this is just a fact of life they must realize and accept. But, you still need to be the one telling them they are special and unique, and that you love them with a sincere heart. You still need to be the one giving them encouragement and uplifting their spirit by your actions, words and deeds. So how do we balance these two messages? Since I had nine children, one way I would let them know they were special to me is I would say, “You are my favorite ___ year old! The only one in the whole wide world!” This would let them know how special they were to me and that they matter immensely. But, it would also help them realize they weren’t better than their siblings. On their birthday each year, they would become my favorite ___ year old. A new title each year! So how do we encourage children to want to socially behave themselves and care about others first? Children need to start very early achieving the grand feeling one can get by being a willing servant. If you have young ones, you know that when you ask them to help you with any small task, and they do it, they feel such a sense of accomplishment! They beam with pride at how helpful they were! Don’t take for granted the enormous teaching moment that can be.
The idea of serving others and being polite should start at home. Requiring your children to speak respectfully to you helps them understand respect for others. Being polite and not being demanding at home helps them understand that everything is not about them. This will relate to their relationships and behaviors outside of the home.
How to Teach Polite Conversation
Does your child say “I want”? This phrase should never be rewarded with an action from you. Never. By responding to “I want” with a reward, you are teaching your child that their every desire simply needs to be stated. You become like a genie out of a bottle while your child only has to state their wish and you produce their every whim. What is that really teaching them?
When my children said, “I want…”, my response would be “I want a castle in Spain”. I would then simply continue with whatever it was I was already doing and made no attempt to do what they desired. This taught them that it was ok to express their desires, (they didn’t get in trouble or punished for saying that) but by doing so, their every wish was not granted. We all have things we want and our letting others know it doesn’t produce any satisfying results.
When they are first learning about this, it is important to discuss the concept of politeness and the idea that they are not entitled to have their every wish granted. The only possible way their desire may be satisfied is by polite conversation. They must say “May I please have”. They also must say “Thank you” if and when they receive the object of their desire. Even infants can learn the sign language gestures for “please” and “thank you” --- so this can start before they are even able to talk! Be sure not to make this process an undesirable routine. If they have demanded something by saying “I want” – you can respond by saying, “Thank you for letting me know that.” Or “I want a castle in Spain” or whatever phrase you choose that lets them know they are not getting anything by stating what they want. Then continue doing whatever you were doing. BUT, do not allow them to quickly say “please” after they have stated a demand…and then get the desired item. By doing so, you will create a routine where they say what they want, you say your phrase, they say please, then they get the item. This is not what you want to happen so do not create that routine. Instead, if they say “I want” and you correct them, tell them they didn’t ask nicely the first time, so they can go away for a few minutes and then come back to you and try again asking politely. Then they MAY or MAY NOT get the item they desire. You will not even make a determination about your answer until they ask politely! Believe me, they will not want to go through this every time and will quickly learn to ask for things with good manners. Of course, as you hand them the item, a “thank you” must be required as well. Do not allow them to continue on until this has been said. They should always thank you for a meal prepared as well. Saying thank you shows gratefulness and the understanding of appreciation for the work and efforts of others. This is also very important. How to Enjoy Your Children in Public Once your children have a habit of being polite and mannerly at home, they begin to get a sense of others outside the home as well. A constant and consistent training from you on the concepts in “BE the MOM” and the requirement of polite conversation will make a lot of difference in your child’s behavior when in public situations.
We have talked about the word “maturity” before. For a reminder, here is the definition. Maturity = Understanding how your present decisions will affect your distant future and acting on that knowledge in a responsible way. This is something you want your children to understand in every aspect of their lives. As they grow, always refer to the future. Talk often about how something they are doing at the moment will produce something else in the future.
For instance, when they say “please” you can say how nice it is that they have learned to be polite and how this will make their relationships with friends and teachers so much better. When they clean their room, mention how keeping their room clean makes it so much nicer when they get up in the morning to a neat and orderly room, and when they grow up, how this habit will mean they will have a beautiful clean home to live in. Constantly talk about the future and how their present actions will affect it. This will teach them to think in mature ways. To make decisions with the immediate thought about how this will change things to come. By doing this, you can also introduce the concept of their reputation. Show them a picture of a yelling child. Talk to them about what they think about that. Ask them if they would want to be around a child who is acting like that. Explain that this child is not thinking about others. This child is being selfish and thoughtless and therefore will have a very hard time making friends. Then talk with them about their behavior. Do others look forward to them being around?
When you are with them and see a child behaving badly in the store, mention this to them. Quietly use it as a lesson as you are continuing to shop…and ask them what they think about that child behaving that way. “Can you hear that child screaming in the store? Isn’t that so sad that someone would act like that?” Reinforce this thought process by praising others who are helpful, or pointing out a child who is sitting nicely or sharing. Say, “Isn’t it so nice how that little girl is sitting so calmly? Doesn’t she look sweet?” Or “Did you see how that boy said please and thank you so kindly? Wasn’t that wonderful?” For many children, this discussion is a realization of the world in a way they have never thought about it before. They start to think outside of themselves. Your conversations with your children should be constant and daily. By teaching them to think outside of themselves and by reinforcing mature thinking patterns, you will see a drastic change in their attitude and behavior both at home and in public.
Teaching Your Child to Interrupt Politely Now that your child understands they are not the center of all things, they need to know how to politely get your attention when you are in a conversation with others. Has this happened to you? You hear yelling “Mommy! Mommy!” or your child just butts right into your conversation with a friend and starts talking about their needs or wants. This shows that immature thought process that they are the center of the world. They believe that when they want to talk or get your attention, you and everyone else should immediately comply. This is not acceptable. Do not allow it. But, they do need to get our attention at times. How can they do this and still show respect to you and to others? Teach them that when they want your attention to quietly place their hand on your arm, wait and leave it there while you are in a conversation with others. While you are still talking or listening to the other person, place your hand on their hand and wait until an opportune time to momentarily stop your conversation. Then look at them and address their need. You are then able to continue your conversation. This skill teaches them patience and putting others ahead of themselves. It also shows respect for you as their mother and the other adult as a person worthy of respect.
If your child is new to learning this skill and interrupts your conversation without putting their hand on your arm and waiting quietly… but instead bursts into your conversation… tell them they forgot to interrupt politely and will have to go away and come back in a few minutes and try again. More Social skills to master…
When someone speaks to you, would it be ok for you to ignore them? Turn away? Would that be sociably acceptable? No, of course not. A child should be no different. They should learn how and when to address others in social situations.
Take time at home to teach your children how to socially behave when addressed by others including adults. Do not allow them to use shyness as a shield to learning to communicate reasonably with people who address them.
(For now, we are only talking about public situations when you or a trusted adult are with them. We will address safety issues about talking to strangers when not with a trusted adult another time.) Children need to understand that communicating with others, even if they don’t feel like it, is a part of life and they should practice it. If they are allowed to behave badly when addressed by others, they will grow up continuing in fear from shyness or be a teenager who ignores adults. This will not be to their benefit in life generally.
A child who is allowed to leave a greeting by others unanswered is a child is doing so for two reasons, neither of which should be ignored. ONE, they are manipulating you or others with a bad attitude or TWO, they are indulging in the social weakness of shyness. Again, don’t allow it. Your child should never be allowed to have a bad attitude toward you or others, and should learn to overcome shyness. Therefore, there should be no excuse for this behavior. BE the MOM and teach them to behave well in public. Practice at home shaking hands firmly and looking at people in the eye. Saying “Hello, it’s nice to see you.” Teach them to speak up and clearly. Don’t mumble. Make this a game and reward them when they do well. A great place to practice this skill is as they enter church on Sunday mornings or Wednesday evenings. You can ask your fellow church members (who you know will be patient) to help you train your children by addressing them and shaking their hand. This not only makes your fellow church members feel a part of your child’s life, it also builds confidence in your child.
When I taught Sunday school, I would ask the children to go into the congregation after church and ask an elderly person or someone they do not normally speak with about how they are doing and shake their hand. Say “it is nice to see you”, etc. I would also have the students sit with a person they do not know well during potluck and have a conversation. Then, we would discuss how things went the next Sunday. This was a part of learning about social skills and about being a good witness! If your child will not address a person who has said hello to them, it is important not to let that go. But, you also do not want to embarrass the other person. It’s best then just to say, “We are working on that.” Then, out of ear shot of the other person, talk to your child. Practice again how to address an adult who has said hello to them. Make them go back to that person and say hello and shake their hand. You might even have to explain you are teaching your child to address others politely and thank them for allowing you to use this time as a learning moment. Your child must know they will not be allowed to behave rudely, manipulate the situation, or use shyness as an excuse to ignore others. Remember what we said before about maturity. Some children will find this uncomfortable at first because they really are shy. Think about being the mature parent. The question then is, what will happen in the future if shyness is used as an excuse now? Do the uncomfortable thing. Make them overcome this weakness and they will build confidence and learn to be more and more comfortable in social situations because of the disciplines you help them put in their lives. Now, think about all these concepts in place. Your child comes up to you and asks politely for a glass of milk. As you give it to them, they say thank you. You go to the store in the afternoon, and they cooperate as you move through it. They politely ask for a cereal you don’t want to buy right now. You say “no, not this time.” There is no fussing. You are at the park and talking with a friend. Your child quietly approaches during your conversation placing their hand on your arm and waits for your attention. Sunday morning you go to church and as you enter, an elderly gentleman says “hello”. Your child reaches out their hand and greets him with a smile and says, “Nice to see you today.” What a joy! Aren’t you so proud?! And aren’t they feeling so accomplished?! This can be the reality for you and your child. You can train them up to be happy, polite and cooperative children if you teach them the social skills they need to succeed in life!
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