Help Your Child Be a Mindful Social Observer

As I guide my kids toward a back-to-school mindset, I’m not focused solely on academics. Sure, I’ve been bringing out the math workbooks and adding more reading and writing to my sons’ weekly chores. But at the same time, I’m also thinking about what I consider to be one of the most important aspects of raising my children: their beliefs and feelings about themselves and their social experiences.

The weeks before school begins offer a chance to think mindfully about my children’s social interactions and friendships, both past and present, and to plan for the future. Who have they connected with or stayed in touch with over the summer? Who would they like to get to know better or spend more time with? I’ve been asking my sons to consider how they may have changed and grown over the past year. Do they have new interests they’d like to pursue? Who were their friends last year, and how did those kids treat them and make them feel? Do they tend to make good choices when they’re with these friends? What else do they remember from last year about friends or acquaintances?

During the first week or two of school, I urge my kids to play the role of a mindful social detective. This means being mindful (i.e., being aware of the present moment) and pausing before jumping in socially. I talk to them about taking a step back from the social scene and carefully observing the actions that are going on around them. What clues can they pick up by watching other kids and their behaviors? Do the actions they observe make them interested in becoming friends with a particular person or group of people?

You can help your child develop mindful social detective skills by people watching in public places or on TV or videos. Use the pause button to freeze the media and discuss what is going on. Ask your child to observe faces and tone of voice to determine a person’s emotion. Look at the context/environment and actions/behaviors to figure out what people might be thinking about or feeling. Your child can make “smart guesses” about mood, emotions, and motivations based on the clues they see. (For more on developing empathy and being a social detective, see pp. 20, 31, 32, and 34 in my book Make Social Learning Stick! as well as You Are a Social Detective by Pam Crooke and Michelle Garcia Winner.)

My older son will be starting middle school this year, and I’m coaching him to be mindful of the new hidden social rules that will be going on around him. Who hangs out where during break or lunch times? As he observes other kids hanging out, what can he discern about the pros and cons of joining their social circle? Can he rely on executive function skills like planning and mindful observation to determine who might be a good choice as a new friend?

Over the summer, one of my sons had difficulty connecting to other kids at camp. After the fact, I realized that I hadn’t adequately primed and prepared him, and I resolved to do better during the transition back to school. Navigating the social scene can be daunting, especially with new schools and bigger transitions. As parents, we can help our children build their social observation skills and prime them for social success as they embark upon each new school year.

Please share thoughts or ideas in the comment section below for what has worked or has not worked for your child.  I look forward to hearing from other parents about their experiences.

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