Talk Much? Eye Contact Needed!

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Kids need you to coach them toward good social skills — and to know when to put the phone down!

We’ve all seen each other immersed in smartphones, sometimes at kids’ sporting events, often at traffic lights. Our phones help us wait in line, at the doctor’s office, at ballet class — so this is in no way a “down with cell phones” diatribe. But when distraction and lack of eye contact starts seeping down to the kids, it crosses from fun to infuriating for parents. And worse: With the majority of our communication happening digitally now, in many homes across the world moms are working hard just to get dinner on the table while kids and, in many cases, husbands, are glued to screens.

To be confident socially, kids need practice, practice, practice, so you have to work a bit harder to give it to them. Are you ready? Let’s go over these social skills for kids one by one from the book, The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age (Harper Paperbacks; 2014) by Catherine Steiner-Adair, Ed.D., and Teresa H. Barker:

Teach Kids to Ask Good Questions
You can’t just let your kids figure this out by themselves, you have to coach them to it: Before you go anywhere, be it to a school or family function or even church, give your kids the skills to ask at least three questions: How has your day been? How is your family? What have you been up to lately? Casually remind them to listen, respond to and even wait for answers. Emphasize making eye contact and practice it at home. With older kids, you can lead them to ask questions about current events or even something that they share in common with a person they may already know.

Pay Attention
It’s rude to be bored around others. If your kids have earbuds in, are checking their phone or their watch, or are looking around, the message is sent that they have better things to do and they’re just now interested in what’s in front of them. Conversing and making the effort to get to know someone is what you are after!

Make Eye Contact
• Younger children need to know the basics of meeting someone, and because little kids are so pliable you can make it fun and even give a small reward. Teach little ones to hold up their heads (like there’s a string attaching it to the ceiling). Teach them to look you in the eye when they are talking to you and to seek out eyes in anyone they are talking to. Teach them to say, “Hi!” and most of the times the adult they meet will take it from there.

• With older kids, confidence goes a long way in a crowd and this takes time at home to acquire. Go over these things at home so they’ll be ready for public settings (but keep an eye on them in public to make sure they’re doing what you expect). Make sure they don’t fidget when in conversation with an adult. Teach them to try and keep their arms down, try not to flip the hair, be sure to make eye contact, don’t mumble, don’t use terms such as “like” for instance or other kid-type jargon. Poise goes a long way in life.

Listen
Part of a stimulating conversation is knowing when NOT to talk. Help kids maintain eye contact and even give small facial or verbal affirmations when someone is speaking. Teach children the connection between interrupting and selfishness — that interrupting displays our lack of value for the person in front of us. Teach questions that take a conversation further. What happened then? What was that like?

Take it on the Road
Practice makes polite, so give your kids lots of chances to try out their new skills.  If your kids forget to say ‘thank you” in the moment, come up with a small non-verbal sign ahead of time so you can remind them without embarrassing them. When Sarah sees Mrs. White at the grocery store, she needs to use her name when she greets her.

Raise Your Expectations
Raise your expectations … after you’ve taken the time for training. When your kids have the basics of good communication mastered, it’s time to raise the bar on the manners and skills that you expect to see. Remember thank you notes? Don’t YOU write them — have your kids do them. For his birthday gifts – about five sentences long for a fifth grader, for example.

Encourage Progress
Let your kids know that you’ve noticed how hard they’ve been working on improving their skills — this goes a long way toward future successes.

Linda Miller is a mom of two and a full-time writer.

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