When you reminisce about your childhood, you can always picture that socially awkward kid at your school or in your neighborhood. Now as parents, it is our responsibility to do everything in our power to help our children to NOT be that socially awkward kid. When I say socially awkward, I mean that kid that everyone made fun of or who is socially isolated.
The key to raising an integrated kid is prevention. In the world of kids, once you get labeled something (e.g., “the stinky kid”), it’s nearly impossible to shake the label. As parents, it is our responsibility to socially correct our kids all the time. While this is in no way an exhaustive list, here are some regular pointers that come up surprisingly often in my clinic day. While many of these can be used at any age, I’m really targeting the 8-9 year-olds, and up (as this is the age that kids become aware enough of those around them to start mocking).
- Good hygiene. I cannot emphasize enough the value of daily showers, brushed teeth, clean clothes, clean/trimmed nails, and styled hair. Getting labeled “stinky” or “smelly” (body odor or breath odor), or “messy” (if hair is never combed or nails are filthy) is one of the most common things to be made fun of. If your child is pubertal, make sure he/she is wearing deodorant.
- Reasonable clothes. In no way am I endorsing or making commentary on what is stylish or worthy of trending, but if your child looks ridiculous in what they have chosen (and the ridiculousness is not due to some current fashion trend), then you should loving correct them. Now there is a time and place for allowing a child to express his/her own creativity. If your child wants to wear pink polka dots and purple stripes together with a rainbow hat and she is in preschool, I endorse that. If your daughter is in Jr. High and comes out wearing the latest skinny jean (and she doesn’t have a skinny body) and it gives her a camel toe, you have to fix it. Help her before the other girls make fun of her (because they will).
- Coach conversations. Teach your child when to contribute to conversations and when to listen. There are a lot of social nuances to conversational skills (e.g., teaching a child to make eye contact, not to talk over someone else, and to wait for a pause in the conversation before talking). Kids who don’t learn these subtle skills have trouble making and keeping friends. It is completely appropriate throughout your everyday interactions and conversations to teach your child by using appropriate phrases like, “You’re interrupting. Wait for a pause in the conversation and then tell me what you have to say” or “Wait. Your brother was talking first. When he is done, it will be your turn.”
- Get friends. If your child is eating lunch by himself or sitting in the corner at recess, you’ve got problems. While friends are not the end all, they are a vital part of social integration during childhood. When your child is very young (preschool age), go with them while they introduce themselves to another child. When your child is older, you may need to role play how to approach another child or group of kids in order to be included in an activity or to make a new friend.
- Avoid “babyish” things. Kids make fun of other kids for activities perceived as babyish. Kids spend their entire childhood trying to be perceived as older, so they will go to great lengths not to be perceived as being childish. So if your child talks in a “baby voice,” correct it. If your 14 year-old daughter loves to play house or with dolls, tell her “no” when friends come over.
- Find activities that are gender similar or gender neutral. This is a tricky topic. Again, I am making no commentary on gender identity or ultimate sexuality. If the goal is help our children not be made fun of, then the solution is find activities that other kids of the same gender can identify with. That doesn’t mean you have to make your son, who hates sports, play soccer or basketball. It just means that you may want to help him identify other activities that he can engage in with other boys (e.g., Legos, robotics, video games, building things, chess club). This again speaks to the goal of helping our children have friends.
- Teach a child what is meant by the phrase, “it’s not nice to say…..” Teaching our children to be honest, but kind, can be a challenge. When your child points to someone overweight and yells, “mom, that lady is fat!” we have a social responsibility to explain to our children the art of not saying everything we observe, even if it is true. Understanding polite niceties goes a long ways when teaching our children social skills.
While I am not proposing that we make all kids exactly the same, I am suggesting activities that may help your child not be the odd one out.
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