Sunday, February 12, 2012

Raising Your Child with Social Intelligence

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What is the difference between teaching our children to be socially conscious, respectful people and teaching them to compromise their own dreams, ideas, and emotions for the good of the group? I admit that I struggle with raising children who are independent, grounded, and aware of their own morals and values, yet who are also able to adapt to their environments and various social settings. I worry that by encouraging them to adjust their actions in certain settings that I am teaching to them to give up on their convictions in order to “fit in” and avoid conflicts.
After reviewing literature and studies on the topic, I think my answers lie in the research being done on social intelligence. Upon a first review, it might seem that social intelligence is another version of emotional intelligence, or emotional I.Q., but there are clear distinctions. Emotional intelligence is the ability of an individual to recognize and manage his own emotions, the foundations for creating healthy relationships with others. Parents and caregivers are extremely influential in helping their children develop their emotional I.Q.s.

What is Social Intelligence?

On the other hand, social intelligence lies just beyond emotional intelligence, within the capacities of people to form meaningful relationships and connect with others. These connections move them beyond their own, individual actions and reactions to interactions with others. It is the ability of people to understand others and react to others in aware, significant, consequential ways. It is in essence at minimum a two-person experience, where emotional intelligence is an individual function.
Author of the book, Social Intelligence, Daniel Goleman talks about what he considers to be a key, fundamental discovery in neuroscience: human brains are wired to connect with other humans. Have you ever had that moment when you looked in your child’s eyes and felt you knew what she was thinking? Perhaps you were experiencing a form of social intelligence, where you allowed yourself to be in tune with another person.
This isn’t the stuff of science fiction. This is the stuff that helps parents like me formulate better plans and strategies for raising healthy, happy children who are involved and engaged with the world around them. Goleman further discusses how those people with whom we feel strong emotional connections and with whom we spend a lot of time are the ones with which we can most easily connect socially. Your 12-year-old son might know precisely what you mean when you look at him while he throws the football on the couch, but someone who doesn’t share your personal and past experiences might not be able to correctly read that as, “When was the last time I told you to throw that ball in here? Never”. Goleman writes that “…our most routine encounters act as regulators in the brain, priming emotions in us, some desirable, others not.”
It is not just our relationships with our family and close friends where we utilize social intelligence. Goleman also discusses, for example, how neuroscience works when a woman makes definitive eye contact with a man – there is actually a physical response within the brain. The two are in essence connected. Social intelligence comes when we pay attention to those around us, their cues, and react to that environment. It has been simplified in some literature in the following way: Traditional intelligence is what makes people smart thinkers. Social intelligence allows them to use that academic knowledge further. Take an awkward employee who is really good at his job, but who just can’t seem to get along with co-workers. He might have intelligence, but lack social intelligence, making it less likely that he will excel in his position.

How Do I Raise a Socially Intelligent Child?

One of the reasons why I homeschool is so that I can raise children who think for themselves and have every opportunity to stay true to themselves. However, I do feel that it is important and even necessary to be able to clearly understand a social setting and adjust your actions to work well in that setting. Social intelligence is not giving less of yourself or changing who you are to be cool,  it is knowing enough about yourself and others that you can interact respectfully and confidently. I keep hearing a song from my childhood roll through my head… “you’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, know when to run.” (The Gambler). Teaching children to understand their surroundings is the first step to social intelligence.
  • Teach children to respect people even if they have different ideas and opinions. Sometimes it seems that people confuse respecting others with compromising your own convictions, but the two are separate. Remind your kids that not everyone has the same social, religious, or cultural backgrounds and that this isnot reason for separation or conflict. You can be respectful without adopting the views of someone else or letting your own fall to the ground.
  • Help children identify their audiences and peers and which social settings might require a specific approach. For me this was my son’s speech class, where he was assigned to write and present a persuasive speech. His audience, I knew, held specific conservative views. I encouraged my son to choose a topic that would not cause ire within the group – it is not a matter of teaching him to lower his own opinions and views, because the goal of the class was simply to learn to write and present speeches, not to convince others of specific ideas.
  • As you work with your child to identify his own emotions and his emotional intelligence, you will see him develop empathy. It is this empathy that he can use to connect with others. Talk with your child about the actions and reactions of others. If your child is playing with friends and someone’s toy breaks, you can say something such as, “I bet that is disappointing that the toy broke. Do you think we might be able to fix it together?” By doing these simple things you are teaching your child to identify with the emotions of another and choose a course of action based on that.
We are social beings. Raising children who are capable and compassionate requires developing social intelligence. However, it doesn’t have to mean compromising ideals. Instead it means that we raise our children to respect others as people, even when we don’t agree, and treat others with the dignity and kindness that we hope others will give our children in return. Now that sounds like a smart idea

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