Psychologists can provide insights about how to teach children to manage their behaviour in ways that are socially acceptable. It’s a bit of a minefield to blog about this topic as there are so many questions that arise from even simple statements. As I wrote socially acceptable I suddenly thought, hmm, socially acceptable, to whom?
OK, so let’s define what I mean by socially acceptable. I mean socially acceptable for whatever environment we are in. The photo in this blog of a pinata is a perfect example of this. There are few times when it's socially OK to hit an object with a stick until it breaks. At a party with a pinata it's just fine. If the environment is home, relaxing and watching TV, socially acceptable could mean lying on the couch or on the floor, eating popcorn using hands from a shared bowl, not talking much to anyone else aside from possible one or two word utterances or laughter. If the environment is a special occasion visit to a fancy restaurant, to celebrate mum and dad’s wedding anniversary, very few of the previous behaviours would be considered socially acceptable. What is likely to be socially acceptable is sitting upright on a chair at a table, making eye contact with other people at the table, using a fork and knife and eating only from your own plate, unless explicitly invited to share, responding to questions in sentences and initiating some conversation with the other people at the table.
So, who defines what is socially acceptable? The answer to that is the society in which we live. Our family background, culture, the country we were raised in, and or live in all contribute to this sense of what is socially acceptable. If we look into the distant past of human history there hasn’t been much that has never been considered socially acceptable at one time or another, up to and including eating other people! If your child is doing something that has been termed socially unacceptable you can quietly think to yourself that it’s likely that at some time in the past, in a different environment or in some other culture this behaviour has been completely socially acceptable and it’s really just a socially defined construct!
While (hopefully) this thinking might make us feel a bit better about what our child has just done, it doesn’t take us any way toward changing the behaviour in order to make things go better for our child. It does help us to understand where things might start to go wrong for a child. Children are still learning about what is and isn’t socially acceptable. It’s a huge learning task for a child as the ground rules keep changing depending on the environment. In addition to this, children are also growing and developing physically so that they are also learning what is socially acceptable for someone of their age. What is OK for a child of two is at times not OK for a child of five.
The question remains, what do we do when our child behaves in a way that is considered socially unacceptable. Prevention is always better than cure. One way to support children and young people is to explain to them in advance what might be expected in a social situation. It’s always good to do this in a casual way so that you minimise any pressure. Driving in the car is a great place to have these conversations. Another is while you are doing something together, or just in the same place together. My kids used to congregate in the kitchen while I was cooking or sorting stuff out from the work and school day. Just casually drop into the conversation that some new situation is coming up. Ensure that you talk about the new experience in positive terms and describe what might happen.
It’s good to talk about variations in the general rule. These are the moments where things can go wrong for a child who is learning about a new situation. Consider teaching a child about a formal dining experience. You may tell your children they will need to stay sitting at the table until everyone is finished eating. You might want to also explain that there will be a few reasons that you might need to get up. Going to the toilet is one. Explain to your children how they might politely excuse themselves from the table. Give your children a chance to come up with their own ideas about how they might manage the situation. At times it can be fun and useful to take time to practice the new skills. Perhaps the children are meeting some new adults at a parent’s workplace, and you think it’s likely someone might offer to shake their hands. It’s a good idea to have a practice first. Give your children lots of praise and positive feedback as they provide their ideas and practice the new skills. Keep this up as they try the new experience and even after they have finished the new experience. If something doesn’t go according to plan reassure your child that they did their best and are learning these new skills. The next time they try it’s likely that things will go better.
Robyn Stead, Child Psychologist and Educator, lives and works in central Auckland.