What About Social Skills?
by Sharon Haag1
Everyone agrees that having good social skills is important for doing well in adult life. But, how does the isolation of growing up without many cultural peers affect the development of those skills in TCKs?
At the MKEA Conference in 1998, Dr. Paul E. White2 presented a workshop on social skills development. Some of the information may be encouraging, and some might give direction to those of you concerned about helping your children grow in this area.
The fact that you are your children’s prime models of culturally appropriate faith-based interaction, and the fact that your children typically enter new social situations under your guidance, can be good news. It is also helpful that the four foundational social abilities apply across cultures. The challenges are the multiplicity of cultural contexts in which your family operates and that the majority of your children’s social experiences may be in cultures different from the one they will enter as adults.
The primary place children are socialized is in the family. Since you are your children’s main examples of how believers in your home culture should relate to one another, you have great opportunity to influence their behaviors in positive ways. You may have fewer negative home-country or peer influences to counteract.
Rather than considering the overwhelming number of essential social skills children need to develop, a good place to start is with the four foundational ones listed by Dr. White:
1. Perspective-taking—the ability to see a situation from another person’s perspective
This is a skill you constantly have opportunity to model as you live among people who have a different perspective from yours. Talking about why people act the way they do based on their values, as well as helping your children understand how their actions affect those around them, promotes development of this skill. This is a very difficult skill for some children to develop—especially “only” children and children with attention deficit disorders who are not very aware of their environment or how they are impacting it.3
2. Impulse Control—the ability to control initial impulses (thoughts, desires) without acting on them
Children need constant practice controlling their impulses. Everyday behaviors that help develop this ability would be such things as asking permission before taking something, not interrupting, waiting for others to go first, saving money, and waiting for everyone to be seated and have prayer before beginning to eat. Dr. White found in his research that most children with behavior problems could tell him the “right” thing to do in a given situation, but did not exercise this self-control to do it.
3. Delaying gratification—the ability to delay gratification of needs and desires
This is closely related to the previous ability, but the focus here is more on future rewards—helping kids see the relationship between waiting now for something better later.
4. Conflict Resolution—the ability to solve an interpersonal problem satisfactorily to both parties, without resorting to aggression (verbal or physical)
Unhelpful adult responses are to either 1) solve the problem for the children, or 2) leave the solution completely up to them. Neither of these extremes teaches good conflict resolution skills. It is most helpful if parents walk children through the following steps until they consistently use the process themselves:
Have each child define the problem (may sound very different!) and restate accurately what the other has said.
Generate potential alternatives for resolution—“What could we do about this?” If the children don’t come up with options, you can give them some, including one with some “bite” (unpleasantness) to motivate cooperation.
Let them choose an option and follow through on it—“But, if I hear any more bickering, we’ll do this (the one with ‘bite’)!”
Some children seem to pick up social skills intuitively, some need to be directly taught (made aware), and others need much instruction and practice. Since we are constantly crossing cultures, even children who easily learn social skills probably need more direct teaching than if they were constantly surrounded by one culture.
Social skills are situation-specific. Awareness is needed in at least three dimensions—1) the people with whom you are relating (adults, same-aged peers, older or younger peers, level of relationship), 2) the place or event (at your place of worship, on the playground, at a funeral), and 3) the cultural setting.
The following is a list of social skills—imagine how each would look different as the dimensions mentioned above change:
responding to requests from others (especially how to say “no” appropriately)
general social responses (“please” and “thank you”)
personal hygiene and grooming
respecting others’ property
respecting social boundaries
private topics (what you don’t talk about).
Possibly the biggest challenge to families with our lifestyle is the lack of opportunity for children to practice home-country social skills in real-life situations, which is where they are learned best. So, it is all the more important to make this a priority focus during furloughs/home assignments and at other times when home-country compatriots are available. Teaching home-country social skills probably needs to be undertaken much more intentionally than would be necessary with single-culture kids. As you enter situations in your home country, think through each kind of encounter as it comes up, and be ready to pre-teach if a new kind of social interaction (in any of the dimensions listed above) will be required of your children.
Principles for Teaching Social Skills
Identify the skill you want to teach and specify the actual behavior, the social group, the setting, and the situation.
Social skills are learned best prior to the actual event.
Social skills need to be taught in small steps (and only one or two at a time).
Social skills are practiced best in role play situations but are learned best in real-life interactions.
As much as possible, give immediate feedback and reinforcement. (Be sure to pick out what was done right to reinforce that.)
Teaching social skills takes time: to teach and train prior to the event, to observe children’s behavior in real-life encounters, to correct and train in real-life settings.
In his booklet What About Their Peer Relationships?, Dr. White covers this topic in more detail and answers questions like the following:
What are the social skills?
How are social skills actually learned?
Why is it that my child gets along great with adults but has problems getting along with other children?
What are potential warning signs that parents should watch for which may indicate problems in a child’s social development?
What happens when parents who homeschool are not very socially skilled themselves?
Permission is granted to copy, but not for commercial use.
Sharon Haag grew up as a third culture kid (TCK) along the northern border of Mexico. She received her K-8 teaching degree through Biola University and an MS in school counseling and School Psychologist’s credential through Cal State Long Beach. She joined SIL in 1974 and taught TCKs in southern Mexico, piloted the Field Education System (FES – a support program for homeschooling families) in Guatemala, and was an itinerant teacher in Cameroon. She later worked from the United States supporting homeschooling families overseas and doing educational evaluations and consultation. She is now retired.
Dr. White is a licensed psychologist with a background of experience in working with behavioral and educational problems. In recent years he has established a consulting firm to work with homeschooling families out of Wichita, Kansas. He also wrote a booklet entitled What About Their Peer Relationships?: Answers to Questions About the Social Development of Homeschooled Children.