How to Raise a “Likeable” Child
When we think about what kids need to succeed in life, the focus these days often lands on accomplishments – things that will look good on a college application (which can now look more like a resume). Yet we keep seeing influential research indicating that simply knowing how to play well in the sandbox is predictive of professional (and personal) success decades later.
These studies make lots of sense. Kids who have good social skills gain a lot of traction. They make for attentive students in the classroom and know how to absorb the wisdom of their teachers. Their blossoming ability to interact well with lots of other kids portends the collaborative skills that will become invaluable when they enter into their chosen professions. Mix those two things together and you have a surefire recipe for success.
Some studies have talked about measuring a child’s “likeability” as an index of her emerging social skills, particularly in school through the lens of her peers. Here likeability has a very particular meaning. It refers to a child’s ability to form friendships and the degree to which her peers enjoy spending time with her. It’s not about being the most popular or desirable. It is about having sufficient social skills that, in older days, would make a kid be thought of as being “a good egg.” Simply someone who can hang well enough with others. A kid can be shy and be likeable. A kid can be outgoing and be likeable. The key is that a child functions like a good collaborator in the classroom and on the playground.
So what makes for “likeability” and how can parents foster these social skills? One approach is to focus on the “3 C’s” that come up repeatedly in research and practice: Collaboration, Conflict and Communication.
Likeable kids have the foundations for working well with others in the early school years. Now, to be sure, it’s a developing capacity, but it’s not only possible but in fact highly recommended to get kids on the collaborative track. Engage your kids in all kinds of activities with you when they are young. Talking to your little ones while you are in the grocery store and asking them to help you shop is a prime example.
Have them help you look for items using age-appropriate language as a guide. Verbally share the list and make a game out of it. Ask them to take items they can manage out of the cart and hand to you. Thank them for their help. You get the picture – find lots of these opportunities at home and with you, throughout all the ages. Do this and you will be raising a collaborator who will act the same in the classroom, and eventually in the workplace.
Another key skill in the repertoire of the likeable kid is developing the ability to handle conflicts. Roots of conflict management can, in fact, take place in the toddler years, though the expectation is not that your 3-year-old is going to be a calm negotiator. Rather what you hope for is that your child gets the experience learning the boundaries of conflict, starts to think about and talks about the viewpoints of others, and experiences what it’s like to begin to channel his emotions a little bit. You, of course, will set the model in your own home. Do you fly off the handle and stomp and scream and insist on getting your own way and throw a fit if you don’t? If you answered yes, chances are your kid will act the same. Let them do some give and take with other kids, and intervene only if it’s turning physical or spinning out of control. They may not solve the conflict, but they are learning that they need to try to do so.
As they age, have conversations after the fact about the thoughts and feelings of others and the importance of trying to find equitable solutions. It may be a slow go, but studies show that kids of all ages absorb these lessons and eventually learn to translate them into healthy and effective conflict management skills. That makes them likeable.
Talk to your kids. Sounds simple, but the reality is that we’re all so busy and are moving targets, and the lack of undistracted time together can diminish chances for parent-child talk and, most importantly, conversation. Even toddlers learn to take turns and develop both listening skills and the ability to contribute to the flow of the conversation. They are quite delightful to engage in a chat. As kids get older, keep in mind something you’ve heard lots of times – regular engaged family meals continue to predict all kinds of good outcomes later in life, like reductions in emotional and behavioral problems that are related to positive interactions with others.
Think about your own life. Keep in mind we aren’t saying you have to be wildly outgoing, the life of every party, or someone who always has a smile on your face. We’re talking about the ABC’s – well, actually the 3 C’s – of fundamental social skills. As a young adult starting off in any field of work, you had to have basic abilities to work with others (even those who could be difficult), figure out how to handle and manage contentious situations, and use conversational skills in many ways. Having those kinds of abilities served you well. They serve kids well, too, and pay off later in life.