How to Talk to Kids about Useful Social Skills for Life

Middle School is a time of incredible growth—kids change a great deal while learning and practicing vital social skills that they will use throughout their lives—how to get along with others, talk about tough topics, compromise, still to your values, be an ally, show up as a good friend and so much more. How do we help open up these topics to kids so that they know what to say when they find themselves in sticky situations? For that, we turn to Catherine Newman.

Guest Expert: Catherine Newman

Catherine Newman is the author of the memoirs Catastrophic Happiness and Waiting for Birdy, the middle-grade novel One Mixed-Up Night, the kids’ craft book Stitch Camp, the how-to books for kids How to Be a Person and What Can I Say? and the new novel We All Want Impossible Things (forthcoming, 11/22). She edits the non-profit kids’ cooking magazine ChopChop, writes the etiquette column for Real Simple magazine, and is a regular contributor to the New York Times, O, The Oprah Magazine, Parents magazine, Cup of Jo, and many other publications. She lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with her family. Catherine knows a lot about super useful social skills kids can use to get along and express themselves!

Important Messages:

  • Connection: Study says that even for introverts face to face conversation releases, dopamine and oxytocin- feelgood brain chemicals, even if you identify as an introvert, you’re still getting them from face to face interaction.
  • Even the face to face at home, kids often have screens. So they have that as the crutch I’m looking my phone next to you, but it’s really parallel play.
  • Model problem resolution! You don’t need to be perfect. Sometimes kids get really kind of rule bound. But what it comes down to is not a rule but asking – what can you do to improve your relationships? Our kids are struggling with stuff and we are struggling. Historically my relationship dilemmas or difficulties with friends, family, whatever, when my kids were younger, I kept them all behind closed doors. I did not expose my kids to my own struggles. They’re just seeing this kind of seamless social life where I get along with everybody as far as they’re concerned and I don’t have any problems. But when you open up, it changes everything. I became a person who was relatable.
  • Harkens back to Jess Lahey ( we all are dealing with these tough conversations. We’re trying so hard to keep them behind closed doors. They don’t feel like we’re relatable then. That’s the gift of failure again—her new book on alcoholism, when she exposes her challenges to her children?
  • Like how are you supposed to talk about staying away from alcohol? If you don’t actually go, I have alcoholism and here’s how I dealt with it.
  • Regret test: Am I going to regret this later? Like when you invited 15 out of 16 people in your class to the party. You will remember doing something hurtful- but not the extra person. What do you actually control so you do the right thing?
  • Golden rule: Would I want someone doing this to me?
  • Authenticity- is this who I am?
  • Universal test; would other people act this way in the same situation?
  • Child- not even in preschool- And he was telling us how every day during recess, he would just climb up into a tree and watch everything. I talked to his preschool teacher and she said something and I have never forgotten “I don’t think you should feel worried. I think you should feel so grateful that you have a kid who knows what he needs and what if we all knew what we needed?” Opportunity to make a choice, he takes a little time to himself.Boundaries or be mean- many choices.
  • How do we help our kids understand what to do in those situations? Like how to introduce themselves? Remember- if it’s a situation where everyone is new- everyone is in the same boat! summon up all your courage and saying to somebody like, “Hey, do you wanna sit with me at lunch?” “Hey, can I sit here too?”  You might in fact be rescuing that person too.
  • The other thing I think kids have control over that helps them like regulate is to when someone else is new, reach out to that person. It’s I swear, it’s just karma. It’s like you generate this kind of energy around you as a person who does that. It inevitably is going to come back to you. you notice someone sitting alone, you have nothing to lose bringing that person over to your group. It is such a wonderful opportunity to be generous. Just be really straightforward. Hey, do you wanna sit with our table? “Hey, we, we have an extra seat over here or anything.” And also to remember that person may not want to, and that’s okay.
  • Curiosity is a life skill. I feel like expressing curiosity about people is a really wonderful life skill. You can ask any type of question of a person- you can use those kinds of conversation starters with people you know  but you can use them sitting next to somebody on the bus you never met.
  • BUT- if they are talking about something that we are not inherently interested in, which means they either need to shift the conversation or they need to keep it short. For example, Pokemon cards. “You have 30 more seconds to tell me whatever it is. You wanna tell me about Pokemon cards and then I’m gonna hit my limit.” Not shaming our kids obviously, but just offering them cues. Like even if what you do is stop and say to the other person, “have you ever held a frog?” and if they say no, then maybe move on to a different topic!?
  • Would this conversation go any differently if you had another person standing there?
  • Skill: initiate compromise without throwing in the towel? I was thinking again about curiosity as a useful tool there, because not being able to compromise- that’s what war is.
  • Compromise:  You wanna play like these games, I wanna play these games. Taking turns could work. You could also say to a friend “persuade me,” or let me try to talk you into it. Or, you could have a rule, like “if you are hosting as a child, if it’s at your house, the guest really gets to pick stuff” as long as you can, like marginally live with it. Ven diagram. Where do we overlap?
  • Empathy: We’ve learned that empathy is, is incredibly important in all relationships. For example, your friends pet just died or they just lost the championship game (and you could care less about sports) or they’re missing their brother of college (and you have a brother and you think he’s totally annoying).
  • “I really think you can teach empathy.” But I also feel like, like, if you look back to that moment, when you smile the first time you smiled at your baby and they smiled back, oh, it’s so hardwired, that’s empathy. That is reflecting back to somebody what they’re feeling. So those like mirror neurons—you are reflecting back to your kid, or they’re reflecting back to you. So it’s already there. (For some neuro divergent kids for whom that experience is challenging).
  • “You took the baby’s toy and now the baby is crying.”
  • Role playing helpful. What would you want someone else to say to you?
  • Kids still may need help- we went to a funeral two years ago and my kids who are grownups legal adults in the car on the way were like, can we just role play, offering condolences? So these are my kids who suddenly in the car, in their fancy outfits, got really nervous about the part where you need to shake somebody’s hand and say, I’m so sorry about your loss, because it’s terrifying.
  • Platinum rule challenge: If somebody wants something different from what you would want in that situation, and you know that then you still need to offer it. So if you wouldn’t really care that your brother left for college, because you think he’s a huge jerk, but your friend’s really sad about her brother leaving for college. Then that’s a platinum rule situation and you just have to lean into what you would wanna hear if you were sad. Just lean into stuff.
  • Even when we’re talking about how to talk to kids about death, it’s not something that we typically talk about, like how to offer condolences and like the actual social skill of, of dealing with it in action. That’s really helpful.
  • Diversity: Let’s say that a child who gets picked on for being different. People are gossiping about that person because of what they wear or how they style their hair. How do we switch from negative gossip to positive gossip?
  • If your kids are talking about bonafide bullying, I think it’s important to get more information about what’s going on and make sure, figure out if an adult needs to step into that situation. I think if you’re talking about something, if you get enough information about a situation to figure out that, in fact, what looks like picking on somebody for being different is racism or homophobia. That’s a different kind of conversation.
  • But if what you’re talking about is a situation where kids are gossiping about a friend behind the friend’s back or gossiping about some, a classmate behind that person’s back. If you can help your kid learn this skill of positive gossip- that can be helpful. So the beauty of positive gossip is it just turns the conversation without a lot of feeling of judgment. So somebody says to you “oh my God, like, look at her overalls. I can’t believe they have so many patches on them. Like, like get a new pair of overalls.” Your kid says, “ it’s funny that you mentioned that. Like I was just reading about like fast fashion and how much like clothing ends up in the landfill. And I think it’s so cool. And I was just noticing those patches and thinking like, I should patch my next pair of jeans. That’s like the coolest thing.” Boom. You have without calling out your friend without making a big, awkward, like performance of your own. you have turned something into a positive interaction without compromising your own values and, and you’ve modeled for your friend looking for the positive.
  • So I’d love to kind of keep this, you know, idea of differences going and move to how to be supportive when someone may confide something into you, to you, something that might be sensitive about a difference, maybe something that some other people might frown upon in school, in the community. And you talk about this in your book. So imagine your child comes home and tells you that their friend confided in them that they’re gay or that they wanna go by a different name because they’re trans and, and your child is like, I, I didn’t really know what to say. And I think I might have messed up cause I just said, okay. And, or I kept talking about the life cycle of a goldfish or, you know, I, I, I said I had to just get to class. Like, and now they’re like what advice would you have as a parent for your child on how to be a supportive friend?
  • Transparency when you mess up: A friend tells you something important and you don’t handle it with empathy- what do you do? Transparency is such a gift in these situations to just go back to your friend and say, oh my gosh, I am so sorry. “I got really nervous when you were talking to me.” Have a do over.
  • Do-over: “I think I just felt like it was this big moment and I was afraid I was gonna blow it. And so I blew it and then I went home and I just felt so lucky that you confided in me or I just felt so proud of for being this person or whatever it is. You just, then you can just say it and you can just say, I’m so sorry. I just got nervous.”
  • Teaching a child to stick up for someone: How do we stand up for somebody who’s our friend when people are now kind of poking at them for that difference.  If your child can summon their courage and say, “Hey, you guys, I, I know this feels weird to you, but I am so filled with admiration for our friend being that brave to tell us, and what can we do to honor that or I just feel so lucky to be trusted.”
  • Top tip: I feel like leaning into the awkwardness is kind of undervalued. “I think I want to do this better. I wanna do this correctly.” I think there’s this feeling that we have to be so quick on our feed and everything has to be so perfect and we have to be so cool. Buying a little time and just being as honest as you need to be about how you’re feeling left. “My life is so much better since I left cool behind my, my daughter last summer was like, wow, look at you, mom. And I was sitting on the beach in my swimsuit with absolutely zero self consciousness, eating a tuna sandwich filled with potato chips that was like dripping onto my bare leg.”

Notable Quotables:

  • “We are creating life-long communicators so that they can reach the life goal of having meaningful relationships.”
  • We need to show our kids conflict resolution and how we got there- bring everything to the table- not Instagram ready people.
  • “It’s not all about you- but it’s not ‘not about you’ at all!”
  • “One of the things we want for our kids is to know themselves really well.”
  • Curiosity is a life skill.
  • “One thing that kids have control over that helps them regulate is to reach out to a person when they are new. I swear, it’s just karma. You generate this kind of energy around you and it inevitably is going to come back to you.”
  • “Create the habit of empathy.”
  • Positive gossip allows your child to turn something negative into a positive interaction without compromising their own values and, at the same time, modeling for your friend how to look for the positive.
  • “Leaning into the awkwardness of a conversation is undervalued.”
  • “My life is so much better since I left ‘cool’ behind.”