We live in a digital world, and though the digital age and the world of social media has brought great opportunities, it has also meant fewer opportunities to connect face to face. We email, text, shop, book holidays, fall in love, and maintain friendships online. It’s where our world is headed, and although in many ways this has opened our world up phenomenally, it’s more important than ever to be deliberate in teaching our kids the importance of the other type of connection – the one that doesn’t happen through wi-fi.
Kids will learn by watching and picking up what’s around them. They’ll experiment with how to do things and will learn by trial and error. Same as we did. The more deliberate we can be in teaching them social skills and nurturing their capacity to connect, the more their experimentation will be safe and enriching for them.
We can’t make their friendships for them, but we can give them vital skills so they can do this for themselves. All children start out as being self-centred. It’s important for their development and figuring where they fit in to the world. We started out that way too. Eventually though, they have to move this awareness to outside of themselves and notice the world and the people around them.
As with any behaviour the healthiest way of being allows for freedom of movement and flexibility between the extremes. We don’t always want our children to connect – not all relationships and friendships will be good for them and it’s important that they are able to recognise and act on this. At the same time though, they need to be able to extend warmly and openly into the world when it is good for them. Healthy living is knowing the difference, and then knowing how to respond. Here are some ways to guide them along.
Tolerate Difference? Nah. Enjoy it.
It’s easy to connect with like-minded people, but sometimes the people who have the greatest capacity to open us up have vastly different experiences and world views to the ones we know. It not just about ‘tolerating’ differences, it’s also about finding ways to connect with them and enjoy them. Let them see you appreciating and connecting with the differences in others. Show them that there are plenty of great things that exist outside of what they know for sure.
Interested people are interesting people.
Showing interest forges connections and can lead to wonderfully unexpected things. Invite their curiosity about the new kid in class, the kids on their team, the one in the corner at the party. Plant little seeds for them, ‘I wonder what the new girl used to do at lunchtime at her old school.’ ‘I wonder why the goalie likes being the goalie.’ Someone who shows interest will always be more interesting than the person who demands it.
Shhhh. Let them speak.
Give them space to explore their minds and to feel what it’s like to be fully attended to. It’s so easy to listen to them ‘almost’ fully. Sometimes when they speak, let them be the only thing you notice. Having someone fully engaged while your mind wanders is a beautiful thing to feel. Show them how it feels, to show them how it’s done.
Let them see you take a stand.
Part of engaging with the world fully means knowing when not to. Let them see you resist situations or people sometimes and when you are able to, be clear about the reason. It’s an important lesson that they don’t have to connect with everyone or like everyone, but if they are going to pull away, they need to do it respectfully and not for the sake of it or just because the person is different. Part of connecting also means connecting with themselves, particularly their own intuition and the part of them that bristles when something isn’t right.
Making the right connections.
Sometimes they won’t know why something feels bad, and that’s okay – we adults are no different. These bad feelings are important and will keep them safe, but they can also get in the way of potentially nourishing connections. It’s important to make sure the bad feelings are connected to the immediate situation, and not to a previous memory or experience. If they can’t articulate the why, help them to expand the what. ‘I can see something doesn’t feel right for you. Can you talk to me a little more about that? What feels bad? What do you think of (when this situation or person comes up)? What do you feel physically? What does it remind you of?’ This will validate their position and help them to understand more about what they’re feeling. It will also help to separate whether it is a genuine no-go, or whether the situation or person is stirring feelings or memories of something else that has nothing to do with the immediate situation. If their response seems to be triggered by a past event encourage them to notice what is different about this one. It’s a good opportunity to teach them how memories and previous experiences can intrude on the present, and why it is important to check things out.
Gently ease their mind open.
Encourage their opinions, even if they are different to your own. Hear them out and give them a place to speak and experiment with difference and diversity. Show them how to open up to other people and other opinions by opening up to theirs.
Let them see beauty in all its versions.
When we see or experience beauty, in any form, we connect with it – whether it’s in nature, music, art and importantly, people. Beautiful was never meant to mean perfect. Beauty is flawed, different, fascinating, unconventional, quirky, interesting, spirited, non-conforming, rough, ragged. These things are in all of us, but we differ in combinations and quantities. Set their lens to a diverse definition of ‘beautiful’ by pointing it out when you see it – the strengths in people and the different ways people look, do, relate, be. It will expand their willingness to connect and make their connections richer and more diverse. Children will borrow our lens. What we see, they will see too.
Make praise feel normal – giving and receiving.
Be quick to praise them, and let them see you praising others. Encourage them to do the same, perhaps by having a dinner table ritual where once or twice a week everyone says something they appreciate about each other. Don’t overdo it though. Give praise when it’s deserved, but don’t throw it around like confetti when it hasn’t really been earned. Praise stops meaning something when it’s given without meaning.
Encourage the detail.
Encourage them to remember names and special things about people – favourite things, the things they don’t like, the funny things they do. Information can fuel a connection – the more you find out about someone, the easier it is to connect.
Boost their emotional vocabulary.
The greater their capacity to recognise and name their emotions, the greater their capacity to recognise it and see it in others and respond accordingly. Notice what they or others might be feeling and name what you see, but give them room to disagree with your observations. ‘You seem frustrated.’ ‘That person looks very determined.’ Do this in real life, and when you’re reading books together or watching a movie.
Expand their awareness of other people and what those others might be feeling by encouraging them to look from a different point of view. This will help them to be more responsive to situations and people. When they tell you about something that has happened, coach them with how to respond without forcing them, and encourage a different point of view… ‘What do you think she was feeling when that happened?’ ‘What do you think would have been a nice thing to happen next?’ ‘How would you feel if that happened to you?’ ‘If that was you, what could someone say to help you feel better?’
They are important, but so is everyone else.
We want our kids to know how amazing they are and how important they are to us, but without fostering the view that they are more important, more deserving or more entitled than anyone else. Arrogance is the enemy of connection. Nurture their open, warm hearts and their capacity to connect and be seen, by encouraging them to see the strengths and the goodness in others as well as themselves.
Being able to connect with people is something that might come easier to some than others, but the skills can always be learned. For that, it takes deliberate teaching and we, as parents, grandparents, carers, teachers, are in a powerful position to do that. Relationships are such an important part of life and that being able to initiate and maintain healthy ones is a vital life skill. All children have different ways of learning, but the ones they will learn the most from are the adults around them. As those adults, we are the ones who get to watch these small humans grow into amazing adults. Our role isn’t only from the sidelines – we have the privileged and vital role of guiding and nurturing them along the way.
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