A Psychologist's Advice to Parents: Doing These 3 Things Can Help You Raise Kinder, More Socially Aware Kids

Karen Hayes | Twenty20

With masks, distance learning and limited social interactions, the pandemic has certainly changed how we raise our kids — causing several concerns for parents.

One of the biggest has to do with their social and emotional development. Will they struggle with relating to and interacting with other kids (and people in general) post-pandemic? Will they be kind and compassionate, or closed off and anti-social?

But don't fret too much on what your kids are missing out on right now, because there are ways to boost their social awareness skills during the pandemic.

Here are three science-backed activities I recommend:

1. Make music together

Having some understanding of music, no matter how old your kid is, can have positive effects on their social skills.

A 2010 study found that young children who played music rather than games with other kids were more likely to help another child later on in life.

In the experiment, only four out of 24 children who played games with other children offered to help a friend fix a broken toy. But 13 out of 24 kids who made music as a group offered a helping hand.

"In traditional cultures," the researchers explained, "making music and dancing are often integral parts of important group ceremonies (i.e., initiation rites, weddings, preparations for battle), so music evolved into a tool that fosters social bonding and group cohesion, ultimately increasing prosocial in-group behavior and cooperation."

It makes sense: Musicians coordinate, share emotional experiences, move together and make synchronized sounds. Creating music in a group requires all parties to be aware of others.

2. Focus on similarities, not differences, with others

Talk to your child about what they have in common with their friends, family, neighbors and classmates — rather than what is different.

For example, you might point out hobbies your child likes that another student does, or favorite bedtime books that everyone in the family has loved at one point.  

Focusing on similarities and shared group experiences is the most effective means scientists have tested for increasing people's sense of obligation to others and their social sensitivity.

Furthermore, talking about similarities can increase feelings that we are part of a shared collective, and that sense of collectivism can increase both generosity and self-awareness.

3. Ask about what's important to them

Invite your child to talk about about the values that are most important to them. What qualities matter the most about their personality?

Perhaps it involves their athletic or artistic abilities, or their sense of humor. Have a conversation about why these things are important aspects of their lives. And listen to their answers without passing judgement.

An international team of psychologists tested the impact on teens' social skills of thinking through these questions. They asked all students in a classroom to indicate which of their peers kicked, hit, or said mean things about another student, spread lies, or excluded others.

The teens most frequently mentioned by peers were ones who had chronically lower self-esteem and held entitled self-views.

However, after reflecting on the values they considered most important, teens' aggressiveness subsided. Even among the most entitled of teens, bullying decreased by 75% even a week after thinking about their values.

The researchers explained that reminders of important values buffer teens against threats to their feelings of self-worth that might otherwise lead them to lash out against others.

Emily BalcetisPhD, is an associate professor of psychology at New York University. She is the author of "Clearer, Closer, Better: How Successful People See the World" and more than 70 scientific publications. Emily has lectured at Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Stanford, among many others. Her work has been covered by Forbes, Newsweek, TIME, NPR, Scientific American and The Atlantic.

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