When I was about eleven or twelve, I had reasonably good social skills with my peers, but I was shy and awkward with adults. Our neighbor, Mrs. F., was a very pleasant lady who loved to spend time in her front yard with her flowers. Often, as I came up the walk to our door, I would pass her. She always gave me a nice greeting, to which I would respond by gazing at my toes and grunting.
One day my mother, who had witnessed these interactions many times, took me aside and suggested that I straighten my neck, look Mrs. F. in the eye, and give her a greeting bold.
“Like what?” I asked.
“Like: “Good morning, Mrs. F.. Beautiful day.”
“I couldn’t do that,” I replied
“Sure you could,” she said.
So we went around with this for a while, she coaxing and nudging, I resisting. Finally she said: “Look, you have to be able to do this sort of thing when you grow up. If you don’t practice now, you’ll never be able to.”
Well that convinced me. Next time I encountered Mrs. F. in her yard, I looked her in the eye, and in my best imitation of a manly voice, I said: “Good morning, Mrs. F. How are you today?”
If Mrs. F. was surprised, she gave no indication. I made two discoveries. Firstly, acquiring social skills is not rocket science; and secondly, the best way to learn is to do.
Another incident I recall from about the same time was an occasion when my mother and I had been shopping and were walking home. We met a classmate of mine, and we chatted briefly, but I didn’t introduce him to my mother. Finally my mother introduced herself, but afterwards she told me that I should have made the introductions, and coached me in how to do it in future.
Another incident. When I was about ten or so, plastic footballs became available. I saved up my pennies and went into town and bought one. When I got home, I organized a game on a small grassy area in front of the houses on our street.
My father was passing, and afterwards he asked me if I thought I would have gotten quite so many free kicks if I hadn’t owned the ball.
“But they were fouling me!” I protested.
“But would you have gotten so many free kicks?”
“No,” I conceded grudgingly.
Nothing more was said, but the lesson – be a good sport – remained with me.
The point I’m making is that babies are born with no social skills whatsoever, and whatever advances we have made in this area by the time we reach adulthood are due, in considerable part, to the thousands of parental interventions like the ones described above.
I would guess that parents have been doing this since the beginning of history, and will likely continue to do it in the future. I doubt that parents today are any less concerned about their children than parents of the past, nor are they any less motivated. But there has been an enormous societal change, the impact of which on this area needs to be acknowledged. And that is that 60 years ago most mothers were stay-at-home moms; today most mothers go out to work.
Now I’m not saying that mothers shouldn’t go out to work! That’s an individual decision.
What I am saying is this. Children have to acquire certain social skills if they are to succeed in the adult world. In the old days the primary teachers of these skills were the stay-at-home moms, if for no other reason than they were the ones who spent most time with the children. Today most mothers are available for eight or nine hours a day less than their counterparts of 60 years ago.
In addition to which a great many mothers today, after they get home from work, have to spend another 6, 7, or 8 hours on household chores!
There just isn’t as much time for social skills training as there used to be. Fathers, of course, could pick up the slack, and undoubtedly some do. But the fact is that the training in question is not receiving the kind of attention that it used to.
So we have a number of young people in every high school who don’t interact well with other people. Because of their poor skills, the ordinary social interactions that most people take for granted just don’t work well for them. Essentially, they don’t find the company of their peers or adults to be pleasant or rewarding. Instead, when in company, they experience discomfort and distress.
What they need is training: training in what to say after hello; in how to shake hands; in making eye contact; in listening; in speaking clearly; in paying compliments; in accepting compliments; in being sensitive; in not being walked over; in coping with disappointment; in not being a wimp; in resisting peer pressure; in walking confidently; in good posture; in setting boundaries; in respecting other people’s boundaries; etc., etc..
In the wake of recent mass murders, there is a growing cry for mandatory mental health screening and services in our schools. What this will mean is more “diagnoses,” more pills, and more confinements in mental hospital. But the individuals will receive nothing in the way of real help. The critical question is this: will the schools step up to the plate and start providing this kind of social skills training? It’s desperately needed, and it’s not rocket science. Bumping the ball to mental health gets the school off the hook. But these children are not sick. They don’t need pills – they need someone to recognize their plight and help them find their way. It is as necessary as the three R’s, and it is a reasonable extension of the school counselor’s role.