Socializing children is a primary responsibility of parents. It is not one that can be pushed off on the schools, which need to focus on academics, or on peers, who are very poor role models in many cases, or even on the churches, which have only a brief amount of time with the child. The parents are in the best position to socialize children. Within the Christian family, socialization by the parents is even more important, since the Christian family will base appropriate social behavior on the eternal teachings of the Bible, not on the changing fashions of the world.
The most important way to teach social skills is by example. Children are far more likely to imitate our actions than to obey our words when the two conflict. They watch how we treat family members, neighbors, friends, and even those we dislike. They pay attention to how we treat those whose beliefs are different from our own and how we treat the poor and less fortunate. From these observations, they will decide how they are supposed to live. The Christian family is expected to be a light unto the world, and perhaps the most important part of that world is the part that is in their own homes.
As parents set a good example, they can help their children understand what they are seeing. “I’m making dinner for Mrs. Wilson tonight. She’s not feeling well and I don’t want her to have to worry about food. I think this is the way Jesus would do it.” “Mr. Johnson’s words really upset me today. I think I’m going to calm down, pray, and let Heavenly Father decide how I should handle it. I don’t want to say something unkind back to him—that wouldn’t make things better and it wouldn’t make me proud of myself.”
Parents need to spend substantial time with their children in social situations. This allows them to monitor how their children react to various social situations and to mentor them through an appropriate reaction. For instance, if a child is being bullied, the parent can step in and explain to the child what to do if she sees he doesn’t know how to handle it or is handling it badly. Conversely, if the child is the one doing the bullying, the parent can stop it and teach the child more appropriate socialization techniques. There are too many children on a school playground for a teacher to observe and handle every situation. Parents must teach these skills themselves, and that means accompanying the child to the playground, soccer practice, or other social settings, in order to observe how the child is handling social skills.
It’s important to note that socializing a child does not mean teaching him to be exactly like everyone else. One child will be an introvert who prefers books to people. Another will want to be friends with everyone in the world. Much of this is built into a child’s genetic makeup and some is learned, but both types of personalities need to be respected.
While the introverted loner will have to interact with others sometimes, she also needs plenty of time alone to recharge her emotional batteries. Chances are, no matter how often she is forced into social settings, she will always prefer to be alone. A parent can show her how to find social settings that are comfortable for her, such as a book club, and help her learn simple and minimal ways to interact in these settings. She can learn to strike a balance between her need to be alone and society’s feelings that people must be social creatures.
The outgoing, highly social child must also learn to strike a balance. While she may choose to spend most of her time with others, there are always going to be times when she must be alone. The social child must learn how to entertain herself when she is alone and to be comfortable with her own company. This may involve helping her find interesting hobbies that can be done alone.
By taking into consideration a child’s natural personality, and respecting it, a parent can help a child learn to fit into the real world while not trying to force her into a mold that doesn’t fit. There is room in the world for both introverts and extraverts and they have a right to remain who they are, while also managing when they find themselves outside their comfort zones.
A critical part of socialization is learning how to be empathetic. To be empathetic is to learn to see things from another point of view. This skill helps us to be more patient and Christ-like in our treatment of others. Parents are in an excellent position to teach empathy to their children through everyday conversations. When a child is criticizing another person, the parent can ask questions designed to help the child see it from the other person’s perspective. “I wonder how Sarah feels when she gets all those bad grades. Do you think she’s embarrassed? Do other children tease her? It could be she has a learning disability. It might also be that school work just isn’t what she’s best at, the way baseball isn’t your best thing and cooking isn’t mine.”
Exposing children to a wide range of people is a good way to build empathy. Take them with you to work in a food bank or to help at Special Olympics. Let them have friends of all ages. One of the challenges of traditional schooling is that children spend nearly all their time with people of one age. They might learn to get along with those their own age, but don’t learn how to interact with those older or younger, and they normally have only one adult with whom to interact. A parent can make certain a child visits the eighty-year-old woman down the street and plays with the four-year-old next door so she is comfortable with all sorts of people and with people of all ages.
As Christian families read the Bible, they can pay special attention to how the Bible says we are supposed to treat us, and we can observe how Jesus Christ treated those with whom he came into contact. Parents can help children translate these examples into real life situation through role-playing and other games, as well as through discussions and real application. For instance, after reading about the Good Samaritan, we can ask our children why they think Jesus Christ told that story. What did he want us to do because we heard it? Act out several situations in which a good Samaritan is needed. Help your children look for Good Samaritan moments. I remember a preschooler who glanced behind him in a children’s church class. He noticed a teacher standing at the back of the room and got up to bring her a chair. His parents had taught him to be a good Samaritan before he was even old enough to go to school. Service, which is a great socialization skill, was a natural part of their Christian family.
Don’t outsource the socialization of your children. Only parents can raise children to be Christ-like, well-socialized adults.