Every day I’m reminded that I’m no parenting expert. I’ve muddled my way through 13 years of raising two girls and have had days of varying success. Gleaned from my experience, and by chatting with other moms, here are what I believe to be the most crucial emotional and social skills that will help your little one navigate the sometimes-choppy waters of childhood, and stand them in good stead as adults.
Always choose to be kind
Kids can be nasty. I’ve seen it over and over again. Sometimes even I want to march onto the playground and deliver some choice words. But as much as I don’t want my girls to be punching bags, I do want them to be kind. They can’t control how other children behave, but they can choose to be kind in every situation.
Encourage your child to see the good in others and be aware of what other children may be going through; to be the one who stands up for the child that’s being bullied and invites the new kid to play with them at recess.
As adults, we know that it’s not the table that’s naughty because your child walked into its corner and hurt himself. Similarly, it’s not your child’s friend’s fault that he was caught talking in class.
Teach your children that they’re not the victims of what happens around them. They are responsible for their actions and their choices and for what follows those decisions. Understanding this will help them take control of their own lives.
Teach your little ones to ask for what they need and to explain what they’re thinking. It takes time to develop this skill so you’re going to need to be patient, learn to ask the right questions, and teach them how to express themselves.
Let me give you an example: When my youngest daughter was in kindergarten, she dressed herself for school in black leggings and a black T-shirt. It was raining so I asked her to put on a sweater. She refused. I asked her again and she refused.
It was a ‘conversation’ that had the potential to escalate very quickly. But in a rare moment of calm, rather than demand that she put the sweater on, I asked her why she wouldn’t.
Turns out she was a spy and spies dress in black and she didn’t have a black cardigan. I explained these two things to her: 1. Spies had to blend in, so if she wore her green sweater and looked like the other kids, she’d be able to do her spy work better. 2. If she tells me what’s going on and what she’s thinking, I can work with her. She put the sweater on and we went to school.
Try new things
Childhood is a time to explore and discover your talents and figure out what you do and don’t like. How are you going to know if peanut butter is better than jelly if you don’t try them both? Can you run fast, or are you better with a ball?
It’s okay if they only play tennis for a month and then try out football, and then give swimming a go. As long as they’re not inconveniencing fellow team members, let them experiment.
Every time they try something new, they’ll learn something about themselves and be more confident to try the next thing. Go along for the ride when you can – from hiking and the theatre to game night – they’ll need you there as their example and safety net as they learn that life’s an adventure to enjoy.
It’s okay to be scared
And while they’re having adventures, they also need to know that it’s okay for them to be scared. In fact, any emotions they have are okay.
Anger, sadness, excitement, disappointment… They will and should feel all these emotions, and we need to acknowledge how they feel and give them the space to feel it.
The trick is in teaching them how to express emotion appropriately, process it and move on when they need to. My eldest daughter is pretty much scared of everything and gets very anxious about new things, so we have a few tricks to help her. If she’s scared of something, we play the what’s-the-worst-that-can-happen-and-what-would-you-do-if-it-happens game. This helps her think through the situation and gives her just enough courage to try it, and possibly realize she loves it!
It doesn’t matter what they read – graphic novels, comics, animal facts or novels – give your kids easy access to books and get them reading. Start young and make it a natural part of their lives. I volunteer at a reading program for 2nd and 3rd graders who struggling to read, and have seen firsthand how not being able to read affects every area of their lives.
They won’t always be the best
The child that understands they don’t have to win to do well, and that they’ll be good at some things and not so great at other things, and that to be good at something usually take a lot of hard work, is a happy child that can be happy for others when they do well. Celebrate with them when they win, praise them when they do well and laugh with them when they fall off the monkey bars halfway across.
It’s okay to make mistakes
Just like your little one won’t always win, they won’t always do everything right. They’ll make mistakes, just like their friends and just like you. It’s important for them to know that that’s okay and that you’re there to help them fix their mistakes. Some of our best life lessons come from making mistakes, learning to say sorry and fixing what we broke, so give them the space and permission to get it wrong from time to time.