Fingers flying fast and furiously, a kid’s dedicated sense of concentration should be enough to make any parent proud. Except all that focus is centered on a phone, and parents are often left bemoaning their child’s inability to make eye contact or utter anything besides monosyllabic answers.
OK, yes, adults are often guilty of the same crime, as kids speak up and act out to get Mom to “Look at me!” instead of the phone. Here’s the thing: by now, we know the importance of putting down the phone and being in the present. We get that one-on-one conversation using spoken words, not text messages, are crucial for connecting with each other on a more meaningful level. Our kids? Not so much, and that’s why they need a little help from Mom and Dad.
Getting Off Screen
The American Speech Language Hearing Association recently reported that just over half of parents surveyed expressed fear that technology hurts the quality of conversations with their kids. But if kids are perfectly comfortable communicating digitally, should we maybe consider digi-talk going forward? Or are they really missing out on some important socialization skills that can only be gained by personal interaction? (Think future job interviews!)
Strong social relationships correlate with positive mental health and self-esteem, according to Sarah Greenwell, a clinical psychologist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center (CCHMC).
Getting off-screen is key to good communication and being present for the person with whom you are communicating. West Chester mom Rachel K. remembers a time when her teenage son was “fighting” with his girlfriend. They were sending messages when Rachel finally told him to stop texting and instead, talk. Her point, she recalled, was that text messages don’t convey tone or body language, making it difficult to correctly interpret the sender’s intent, which in turn can potentially escalate the argument rather than resolving it. Talking out a problem face to face can strengthen relationships, while a digital connection is potentially fraught with miscommunication pitfalls. And learning how to navigate live conversation is critical down the road, when kids face college interviews, job interviews, dating, or even just learning to make new friends on their own.
It’s never too early to help your child develop socialization skills. In fact, it’s a critical part of her growing up, and it all begins with talking to her. “Verbal language (communication through speech) is developed first through watching and listening as the parent or caregiver talks to the child,” says Ann Kummer, Senior Director of the Division of Speech-Language Pathology at CCHMC. “The child learns to produce the specific speech sounds of the language used in his environment. In addition, the child learns to initiate communication by requesting food or items from the caregiver. In addition, the child learns nonverbal communication cues and the skill of turn-taking, which is essential in communication.”
Beware of the educational apps at this stage. While Kummer says that apps can provide a way to learn names of objects and understand concepts, she points out that they don’t provide the kind of live give-and-take where one person reacts off another.
“They do not offer the emotional rewards of eye contact, empathy for others, joint attention and mutual understanding,” she says. “In addition, the child does not learn conversational skills, such as how to begin and end a conversation, maintain a topic, change the topic, and understand idioms/expressions based on context.”
Beyond parent and child talk, your baby or toddler’s playgroup is another step in learning to build relationships. At home, toddlers interact with parents, caregivers, older siblings … all people who have an authoritative role. But in a playgroup, kids are on an even playing field, which gives them more opportunities to try out roles they may not get a chance to explore at home. Plus, early exposure to social settings helps kids learn flexibility. As Greenwell points out, “Adults take turns well.” Mom and Dad are more patient with little ones, they model how to share and take turns, whereas a toddler’s peers don’t have those same skills, leaving him to find ways to work out issues with others.
If you’re not entirely confident about plunking down your child in a group and letting the chips fall where they may, you could always check out a developmental play program. A more structured setting might be a way to introduce your tot to others his own age, where he can see and learn from others while working on mastering his own skills.
Getting Past Polite
So you’ve been working hard to get your kid to practice things like making eye contact and responding to questions when asked. But now he can’t seem to offer more than the “Fine, thanks, how are you?” kinds of responses that are, while certainly polite, also a little bit fake. Getting him past just being polite, however, is really just a matter of encouraging curiosity in the lives of others and practicing. Think about when you run into your doctor outside of his office – it’s kind of strange to see him in a different setting, right? Suddenly you realize that he has a life outside tending to your family’s medical needs.
“Encouraging curiosity is lifelong and begins early in childhood,” says Greenwell, who suggests that parents start right away by introducing kids to new experiences and new people. The benefits are far-reaching – as Greenwell points out, some of the most successful and charismatic people that we meet in life are the ones who spend time asking after others, and showing interest in their lives. It just takes a little practice, praise and positivity.
“Talking to a lot of people makes it easier to do it,” she says, adding that praising a child for his good communication reinforces belief in his ability. “Positive interactions keep things positive, it makes you want to keep doing it more.” Next thing you know, you’ll have an expert conversationalist on your hands.
Getting Past the Jitters
New social situations can be intimidating for anyone, child or adult. A few tips can help you encourage your child, whether he’s making a class presentation or meeting new people.
• Share your own experiences — It helps for a child to hear about your past successes as well as your failures
• Tell him to breath — Like those nervous contestants on The Voice, breathing air slowly out through the lips really helps calm nerves!
• Stop thinking the worst — Everyone get nervous, not just him! That can help bring composure.
• Be prepared — Have questions at the ready for meeting new people
• Role play — Work through different meet and greet scenarios at home.
• Use the home-field advantage — Invite friends to your house a lot so meeting others becomes old hat.
• Get busy — Have a game or activity ready for when new friends visit.
• Praise progress — Don’t force or push your child to speak up, he’ll just resist all the more; instead praise him for making eye contact, or smiling when speaking