"By teaching children what they need to learn early in life, they may be better able to cope with the problems of their culture than by learning late the basic rules when little time is allotted for their mastery."
—Nancy Rambusch Learning How to Learn
We often overlook how important it is for our children to have experiences with people in the community. Perhaps because we are so focused on keeping our children safe, happy, and healthy, we sometimes forget to teach them the skills they need to feel confident and competent interacting with others.
During a recent conversation with a counselor friend, I learned she was working with a group of young people who wanted and needed to develop appropriate social skills. These millennials, aged 19 to 30, had learned to communicate with friends via computer games, emails, and texts. They mostly talked with friends via social media, which minimized daily human interactions. This mode of communication seemed normal until they realized they were uncomfortable in many face-to-face social situations.
At home children quickly learn what is expected of them. They know what to do when riding in the car, while eating at the dinner table, or when greeting a guest. When we take children out into the community, we so often bring them along with little thought of what they might learn or how they could do things for themselves with a little preparation beforehand.
In the Montessori classroom, children have the opportunity to repeatedly practice the lessons of grace and courtesy. They can also practice these skills in public, but oftentimes we take over without thinking, even when our children are able to speak for themselves.
Do your children know how to ask the librarian how to find a book and then check it out? Can they order for themselves in a restaurant? Can they find items for you in the grocery store, asking a clerk for help if necessary? These examples are all ways we can empower children to become more socially comfortable in public.
If you are taking your children to church or to the symphony, you can prepare them by explaining that this is a time when they must sit quietly. By telling them what to expect and watch for in advance, they will have enough knowledge to be interested and curious about the new and unique event. Imagine the many things to learn at a symphony even before the performance - where the exits are and how they are indicated, how the tickets identify the appointed seat, how people look and talk with one another, that the lights get dimmed, and then the conductor appears before the music starts.
Before choosing such an outing, take into account your child's age and individual temperament, which could make it easier or harder to sit and focus. Be prepared to tiptoe out of temple or a movie with the squirmy two-year-old, or better yet, don't take him in the first place. Some find it helpful to shorten the event for youngsters. For example, prepare to go to the museum to see only one or two specific paintings or sculptures that they have been introduced to beforehand.
Do not minimize the value of allowing your children to watch, listen, and observe others. Just in case they become restless, you could take a couple of items to quietly occupy them, such as a book or pencil with a small notebook. In a situation that does not demand silence, you could play a game of tic-tac-toe or I Spy with them.
You might be tempted to give your child your phone when they are fidgety, but technology places a child in a separate world. Children generally become engrossed and quiet while engaged in technology, but don't really learn how to behave in real life. Some situations, like traveling on an airplane, might call for extreme distractions, especially for younger children. If you do resort to electronics, be aware that children often have difficulty transitioning back to reality, so set limits in advance. For example, alert your child that after two cartoons, it will be time to read a book or have a snack.
Learning the rules of behavior in new situations makes life easier for everyone. Even adults feel more secure when they know what to expect. A friend recently talked with me about her nervous feelings anticipating her first black-tie business affair. Children also take comfort in being coached by parents when facing novel life experiences. Discuss in advance what will happen at the bar mitzvah, swimming lesson, or class field trip.
No matter what you say, children are more likely to do as you do, not as you say. Your body language and behavior are worth a thousand words. Lecturing and nagging are never as effective as being a role model.
Children can learn that certain situations require them to behave in very mature ways. In the very busy waiting room of a hospital lab, for example, I saw a father waiting with his two sons, approximately five and seven years old. The boys were quietly sitting, obviously interested in the comings and goings of the diverse group of people. They somehow knew how to wait patiently, and were complimented by their father when it was finally their turn.
Learning how the social world functions helps prepare children to interact appropriately and politely with others. Broadening your children's experiences expands their knowledge, creativity, and adaptability, and enables you to have wonderful experiences together as a family outside the home. As Maria Montessori expressed in The Secret of Childhood, "Children are no longer the sole concern of their parents to be paraded around in their Sunday best. No, they are now recognized as a part of the society in which they live."
—by Jane M. Jacobs, M.A., Montessori Educational Consultant at Montessori Services. She is a trained primary Montessori directress and also a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She has taught children aged 2 to 7 years in Montessori schools, Headstart, and also in a preschool for children with developmental challenges. In her counseling practice, she helps individuals, couples, and families.
—Originally Published 2019