Social Skills

 Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

Are children born with an impulse to be social?

It’s commonly believed that children are born, morally, as blank slates and must be taught from an early age to be prosocial. But while parents should do their best to promote kindness and empathy in their children, growing evidence suggests that even newborns may be inherently prosocial, showing a keen interest in helping, sharing with, and comforting others, even if they are unable to do so. For example, children just days old will respond to hearing another baby’s cries with seemingly empathetic cries of their own and, later, make gestures to comfort a distressed peer.

How can parents help kids develop empathy?

Empathy necessitates understanding another person’s feelings, and then feeling or imagining similar emotions yourself. Research suggests that many children display empathy by the time they’re 18 months old, by acting to help an adult who seems to be struggling with a task or comforting a parent who seems distressed. For highly sensitive children, taking on others’ emotions may come naturally, even if it’s can sometimes be overwhelming; for other kids, having parents who talk about emotions, openly and often—along with modeling empathy at home—can help them develop their own empathy.

To learn more, see Empathy.

How do young children learn to be kind to each other?

Young children can be selfish, holding onto coveted resources whenever they have the opportunity and resisting pleas to share, even though they know it’s the right thing to do. But research shows they are also highly empathetic, and quick to offer comfort to those in distress. Sharing toys, however, or understanding the importance of giving to help others may require parental guidance. Fortunately, the evidence is clear that not only can children learn to share, but that helping others makes them feel good, just as it does adults. And despite the reputation of “the terrible twos,” research finds that when toddlers play with each other, they respect and favor fair play.

How do children learn from each other?

Unsupervised time spent playing with other children, advocates argue, is essential for social and cognitive development, although research suggests that such time has been on the decline in recent years. Children are naturally inclined to pay close attention to their peers and they learn a great deal from other kids, even at a young age, such as authentic communication, independence, the importance of following formal and informal rules, and how to get along with others.

To learn more, see Social Learning Theory.

How do kids learn to lie?

Virtually all children (like most adults) lie, and research suggests that most begin lying as early as age 2 or 3. As most parents learn, young children are not especially skilled in lying—which is a complex cognitive and social task—but they learn to get better at it. Until a child develops a theory of mind—the understanding that other people have separate minds, wants, and beliefs—they generally do not lie. Once they better understand others, they can try to capitalize on that understanding to benefit themselves by lying. When kids begin lying, a parent’s response is important: Research suggests that teaching kids that lying is bad is less effective in reducing lies than by telling them why honesty is good. But socialization, and the lessons they learn both from family and peers, also has a major influence on their interest in lying.

How can parents help a shy child get comfortable with socializing?

Children who act shy around other kids, or around new kids, may be on a concerning cycle: Uncomfortable in social settings, they avoid interacting with peers, only putting them further behind in developing social skills, and thus even more reluctant to try to be social. Parents should resist simply pushing such children into social groups, but instead follow their lead and seek out social opportunities around their child’s specific interests, focusing on one-on-one interactions first, practicing social skills at home through playacting—making eye contact, smiling, speaking clearly, and asking “what” and “how” questions—and above all, being patient.

To learn more, see Shyness.

Do only children struggle socially?

They don’t have to, and parents can help by arranging time with other children, including in day care or preschool programs. Only children may become used to being the sole child around adults, and thus worthy of the most attention. Spending time as one of many children can help them become more realistic in their expectations from adults. More time with other kids also helps them learn to deal with competition and conflict, and avoid the tendency to become “adultized” from spending so much time with parents alone.

Are home-schooled children slow to develop social skills?

No. Research shows that homeschooled kids are generally as socially skilled as children taught in schools, highlighting the fact that, at least at younger ages, socialization is largely driven by parents and that most homeschooling families pursue extracurricular outlets that allow their children to spend time with other kids.

Does screen time damage kids’ social skills?

It has been widely assumed that significant increases in screen time in recent years have hampered children’s ability to develop social skills, but research has found that it’s not the case. In a comparison of today’s children and an earlier cohort that came of age before the rise of social media, which was based on evaluations by teachers and parents, there was little difference detected in social development; in fact, the younger generation scored slightly higher on self-control and interpersonal skills, perhaps because so much screen time today is fundamentally interactive.

Why do teenagers make riskier choices when they’re with their peers?

Teenagers are both egocentric—focused on themselves, and sure that everyone else is, too—and highly attuned to their peers, and their ability to earn their friendship and respect. According to the theories of evolutionary psychologists, adolescence is the period during which early humans built the social networks they would need to thrive. The key to that process is bonding with peers, and responding to their influence, which often involves proving loyalty by taking risks. Research supporting the theory finds that humans are not the only animals that display greater risk-taking in young adulthood, and that, among humans, adolescents do make riskier choices when with peers than when they are alone.

To learn more, see Adolescence.

How can kids respond to bullying?

Bullying between children can begin in toddlerhood, and peaks around ages 11 to 13, gradually declining afterward, although some people remain bullies throughout their lives. Until about age 7, bullies pick on anyone, but after that, they “shop” for promising targets—kids who become visibly upset when pushed, offer little resistance, and lack many allies. Therefore, the best defense is being socially skilled and confident, although not every child will achieve that. Studies show that the most effective way to stop a bully is to activate bystanders who will step in and oppose the aggressor. It’s easier said than done; in reality, young bystanders tend to stand idly by, and may even enjoy the spectacle. But when children with high social status do stand to oppose bullies, research shows, they’re highly effective both at ending the behavior and influencing others to speak up as well.

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