Why Johnny Can't Play

Kids acquire social competence through everyday interactions with parents.

By Hara Estroff Marano, published September 1, 1997 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Every parent knows that the ability to make and keep friends really matters when kids set foot in school. But exactly how do kids acquire social competence, and where?

A husband and wife team finds that kids' social skills come fundamentally from parents' everyday style of interacting with them. Through myriad mundane acts of competent parenting, kids learn responsiveness, sensitivity, and a positive orientation to others, report Jacquelyn Mize Ph.D., and Gregory Petit. Ph.D., professors of human development at Alabama's Auburn University. At least for the first few years, they say, mom and dad make all the difference. Interactions with parents give kids a general disposition toward peers.

Coaching, or engaging children in constructive discussion of peer problems, helps kids learn more specific social strategies. In Mize and Petit's studies of more than 100 parent-child dyads, coaching proved somewhat more effective for girls than for boys, especially when the child was a victim of some negative action, like being rebuffed in a bid to play. In coaching, Mize observes, it's less important that parents know exactly what to do than to stimulate the child to think about what to do.

One important aspect of social competence is the ability to make positive responses to others, even in the face of rejection. Says Mize: "Some parents encourage resilience--they acknowledge that sometimes [children's] feelings get hurt by peers, then ask, `What can you do better to join in?' Unless parents teach their kids to handle rebuffs, kids fail to learn how to change bad feelings to good ones."