I remember when my daughter Lucy was two, she would scream “MILK!” from her chair like an irate tyrant. I quickly realized that was not the right way to communicate. I taught her tyrants don’t get milk, but kids who say “please” do.
Good communication skills aren’t automatic; they must be learned. This takes time, effort, and practice. There’s not an app for your kids to learn how to communicate. The training necessary for our kids to grow up social isn’t found on a phone or a tablet. Actually, the opposite is true. Kids have to put down their phones and tablets and actually look up to talk and listen to others.
With the average child spending 7 hours a day on screens, many kids aren’t growing up with a mastery of basic communication skills. They struggle with things like meeting someone new, making eye contact, asking for something they need, starting a conversation, apologizing, or expressing love.
Have you ever said something like, “I’m sorry, my child is shy”? If so, you’re not alone. I certainly remember hiding behind my mom’s legs when being introduced to someone. Our role as parents is to help our children overcome shyness in order to become better communicators. It doesn’t mean our quiet child has to become the life of the party. It’s about teaching children social skills that will really help them in life. It’s about being considerate to others.
Shyness is strengthened when kids are allowed to spend huge amounts of time alone with just their phones or tablets, isolated from others, connected to social media but not to people in real life. I think social media is an oxymoron like “jumbo shrimp.” Social media is often more isolating than social. Kids are growing up very comfortable with texting, posting photos, and making comments. They are native device users, but they aren’t native face-to-face communicators.
This can impact the dating world your child someday enters. Young adults report having problems dating because they just aren’t used to actually interacting with the opposite sex. So much of life happens online instead of face-to-face. The world of phones and Wifi is safer and more familiar than the wild west of unpredictable conversation. The irony is that most kids don’t even use the phone to talk, they text.
Here are a few traits of healthy and unhealthy communicators. Consider which category your child would fit under.
Makes eye contact with others
Generally exhibits good behavior
People are comfortably with him or her
Avoids eye contact with others
Rude or unresponsive
Has behavior problems
People are not comfortable with him or her
Take heart, you can teach your child to interact with other kids and adults at home and while you’re out. They need prodding and practice. The next time you are in social setting and you see a child who is alone, you might say to your child, “Look at that boy. He’s all by himself. Why don’t you go over and talk with him? Why don’t you invite him into your group?” In so doing, you are teaching your child to take the first step to befriend others. You are teaching him or her to overcome nervousness and gain confidence when beginning conversations.
Consider your home as a communication lab. Teach family members to pivot away from screens when talking to each other. Praise your children for giving eye contact and being good listeners. Model putting your phone down and turning off the TV when you’re having conversations.
The phone is a communication tool, but for many kids, it is harming their ability to communicate more than it’s helping. I talked with a bus driver who has driven elementary school kids for 30 years. She remarked how odd and sad it was that many kids board the bus, looking down at their devices. The once boisterous rows are fairly quiet, as kids play video games and look at their phones instead of each other.
This should not be. Bring back the noisy bus and the constant chatter. If you want to raise an excellent communicator, scale back on screens. Ramp up conversation and the imaginary play of yesterday. Interacting with screens more than people can foster an unhealthy pattern of isolation and severely weaken communication skills. But you can fight against this, one conversation, one screen free activity, at a time.
Arlene Pellicane is a speaker and author of several books including Calm, Cool, and Connected: 5 Digital Habits for a More Balanced Life and Growing Up Social: Raising Relational Kids in a Screen-Driven World which she wrote with Dr. Gary Chapman. Learn more at ArlenePellicane.com.