As parents, we cringe when our kids are socially awkward. We know those times when they annoy other kids, or don't know how to make a friend, or just send the wrong message. All we want is for them to be happy and successful in life. Having good social skills is important for both. According to a study by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, "Social skill competency impacts every moment of a child's life. It is a better predictor of a child's success and happiness as an adult, more so than grades." We all really knew this. The people who are successful as adults aren't necessarily the ones with the highest grade point averages or SAT scores.
If only all kids had this instinct nailed down, or if it was like a memory card we could stick in their heads. From a parent point of view, the pain of having a child say, "No one likes me," is intense. We want to help and don't know how. We give advice, nag and arrange play dates, all hoping that something will click. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't. They don't all grow out of it.
Daniel Goleman, in Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships, suggests that the need and ability to be social is wired into our brains. Some of us have better wiring than others. But those whose wiring is a little faulty can learn the skills necessary to do a better job.
Take Brian. Brian is ten. He's a good basketball player -- he scored two goals in the last game. He's excited to play today, but he starts pouting and crosses his arms when the coach doesn't call his name as a starter. The coach gives Brian a look, but Brian doesn't get the message. The coach calls Greg, who's been watching the play and cheering on his teammates. Brian is sending the wrong message: I only care about myself. Greg is sending the right message: I'm a team player. Brian has no idea why he doesn't get more playing time. He goes home and complains, "The coach is mean."
Many of us have a Brian on our hands. Brian needs to send messages via better body language. Brian isn't really selfish: he's just reactive. He needs to look at non-verbal behavior -- on TV, in other people. And parents can help point this out. Kids pick up quickly how nonverbal language works once they're aware of it. And that is a big step in the right direction.