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5 Emotional Skills Every Child Should Have

My 10-year-old son recently shared a secret with me. He had used some of his allowance to buy Pokemon trading cards, which he called "way, way expensive." He didn't even like the cards, he admitted to me. But trading them was a way for him to build and keep some friendships in school with his classmates who collected the cards.

His willingness to use his growing social sophistication and empathy to work on friendships shows how important emotional skills are for children in elementary school. Starting around age 5 and continuing through adolescence, the important skills children must master are emotional and social. How do I go about making friends? How do I handle frustration?

Many of these skills start in toddlerhood of course. And just as parents can help (or hinder) their youngsters' early conquests of physical challenges, they can help school-age children become more emotionally sophisticated and confident.

Let's look at five of the greatest challenges faced by kids in school: patience, self-reliance, responsibility, bonding, and self-control.

Contributing editor Lawrence Kutner, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and the author of five books on child development, teaches at the Harvard Medical School.

Patience

Toddlers and preschoolers live in the moment. When they want something, whether it's a snack or a toy  -- or even you  -- they want it NOW! All of that changes when they reach kindergarten. Sure, they may still want things immediately, just as we do as adults. But they find that they have to spend more and more time waiting for "the good stuff."

Snack times in school are scheduled; children can't just munch on an apple when they're hungry. If they want to use the slide on the playground, they have to wait in line. As they grow older, the stories they read may take a few days to finish. A long-division problem requires several steps, and more than memorization, to answer.

This "delay of gratification," as psychologists call it, is a critical skill. To test this ability among young children, psychologists have run experiments in which the kids are shown two toys. One of the toys is clearly much more attractive than the other. The youngsters are also given a bell to ring, and told that if they ring the bell after the experimenter leaves the room, they'll immediately get the less attractive toy. But if they're patient and wait for the experimenter to come back in a few minutes, they'll be given the better toy.

Some kids find the tension of waiting overwhelming. They ring the bell soon after the experimenter leaves. Others hold out until the psychologist, who's observing them from behind a one-way mirror, returns. Even 10 years later, teenagers who had been patient in the experiments as young children did better academically and handled frustration with greater aplomb than those teens who, during the experiment, just couldn't wait.

It's unclear whether the ability to delay gratification caused these kids to perform better in school and elsewhere, or whether both the patience and good grades reflect some other skill they had when they were young. Still, helping a school-age kid learn patience is a worthwhile investment. Here are some things you can do to help:

Have realistic expectations. Remember that for a 10-year-old, a delay of an hour may not seem bad. But to a 5-year-old, it can feel like an eternity. Start off with small delays in which your child is almost assured of success, and then work your way up. Also, remember that children who are under stress are much less patient than those who are relaxed.

Teach distraction 101.

Let's say that you and your daughter get stuck in traffic. Instead of getting frustrated, suggest that she sing a song or play a word game. Those kids who are the best at delaying gratification tend to be creative in finding ways to take their minds off their frustrations.

Cook together. This is a great way for youngsters to learn patience. They can help in just about every stage of the process. Waiting for muffins or cookies to cool so that you can take a bite takes a good deal of self-control.

Give an allowance.

And then let your child control it. At first, she'll probably spend it all immediately. Help her understand the many desirable things she would be able to buy if she saved part of it for one week. Work your way up together to saving for several months. This is not only one of the most powerful tools for teaching patience, it will help your child become financially more sophisticated as a teenager.

Self-Reliance

Few things are as rewarding  -- and sometimes as difficult  -- to a school-age child as becoming more self-reliant. Whether it's crossing the street alone or completing a school project, kids crave appropriate challenges that enhance their sense of independence.

The key word in that sentence is "appropriate." A child who is left alone for a few hours after school before he is emotionally ready will simply become frightened rather than confident. Age is not the only marker of when he is, for example, ready to be briefly left in the house all by himself. His temperament and previous experience also play a large role in how he approaches this type of emotional challenge.

A baby begins walking by taking small, unsteady steps, but all the while being careful to hold on to something for support. That same approach  -- encouraging new challenges  -- works well with a school-age youngster to build his self-reliance.

Progress at your child's pace.

In the beginning, that may feel unbearably slow. For example, you may ask your 5-year-old to help you set the table. Break the task into components. Begin by having him set out all the plates. That's fairly simple, especially if you have a small family. Once he's mastered that, have him set out the napkins. A few days later, add the forks to his list.

The key is to move slowly and methodically. Let him be successful with each small step before moving on to the next one. If you asked him in the beginning to set out all the dishes and silverware, he'd feel overwhelmed  -- which is the opposite of what you want.

Break up complex tasks.

Taking public transportation alone when you're 10 or 11 is quite different from setting a table when you're 5. The components are not always as obvious. For example, before a child can travel alone safely, he should feel confident telling time and following directions. He should know how to contact a responsible adult in an emergency and what to do if he becomes lost.

Two useful techniques are reverse teaching and shadowing. Let your child teach you how the local bus system works, for example. Where do the buses go in your neighborhood? How do you pay the fare? Most kids love showing off their knowledge to adults.

When my son started taking public transportation to a new school in the fourth grade, I went with him every morning and picked him up in the afternoon for the first few weeks. The route was fairly complex, and involved a quarter-mile walk plus two trams. (This was in Switzerland.) As he grew more comfortable with the routine and expressed an interest in trying to travel by himself, I agreed to shadow him for a week.

I stayed a few feet away and didn't give any signals when the right tram arrived. I sat a few seats behind him in the car, making him responsible for getting off at the right stop. We both became more confident in his skills. One morning I asked him to go to school by himself. He was frightened but agreed to try  -- and to call me from a pay phone when he reached school. He called 30 minutes later to tell me how hard it was, but that he had made it. When he came home that afternoon, the first words out of his mouth were, "Dad, I want to do this every day!"

Responsibility

This is a close cousin to self-reliance, but with some important emotional differences. Indeed, one sign of maturity is when a youngster stops saying "The plate broke," and instead says, "I broke the plate"  -- a subtle but important distinction that indicates responsibility.

Toddlers and preschoolers find it hard to take responsibility for their own actions. At that age, they confuse doing something bad with being someone bad. Since they believe they aren't bad people, they couldn't have been the one to break the plate and, therefore, to take the blame.

School-age children must come to terms with this distinction between doing and being. One way they do this is by observing their parents.

Admit some of your mistakes.

Until they become preteens, kids usually put their parents on a pedestal. Later they see them as they are.

Taking responsibility goes hand-in-hand with the feeling that you can and should "own up when you've messed up." If your children hear you admit when you've made a mistake, and then see how you recover from that error, including how you recover emotionally, they'll be better able to take responsibility for their own actions and inevitable mistakes.

Don't repeat elementary school.

You've already been through it and don't need to do so again. Remind yourself of this whenever you help your children with their homework or other class assignments.

It's important to give your youngster the support she needs as her school assignments become more complex. Often the most important lessons learned from elementary-school homework have to do with the child's feelings of accomplishment and responsibility. If you do her homework for her, you'll undermine those important feelings. Help her get organized. Review such principles as how to outline an essay. Let her show you her work and get your approval. But if your child can't do her homework, talk to her teacher.

Bonding

The nature of friendship changes dramatically and significantly during elementary school. Early friends are largely based on convenience and shared experiences. Your best friend likely lives next door or is a classmate at school.

Starting around age 10, however, children begin selecting friends based on shared values, interests, and perceptions of the world. Sports fanatics hang around mostly with sports fanatics. Kids who do well in school like to spend more time with other academic types.

Parents shouldn't worry about the number of friends their children have. The difference between having no close friends and having one close friend is tremendous; the difference between having one and having a dozen is very small.

As friendships change, they require children to develop more sophisticated social and emotional skills. In particular, they need to become more empathetic so that they can view situations from the friend's perspective. Here are some things that can help:

Talk.

Point out good friendships (and bad friendships) in movies, television programs, and books. For example, if a television program features a kid who's being rejected at school, talk about what a friend might do to help in that situation. Remember that your goal is to give your child practice thinking about this, not to have him reach a particular conclusion.

Encourage your child.

Help him become involved in extracurricular activities, such as sports teams or drama programs. He will meet a wider range of youngsters who might become his friends.

Give coaching in social situations.

What if a friend offers him some alcohol or says they should shoplift some videos? Remember that one of your child's goals is to maintain the friendship while, at the same time, declining to act inappropriately.

Self-Control

Preteens can feel overwhelmed by their own emotions. School assignments  -- everything from figuring out square roots to writing a paper on Bolivia  -- are more demanding. Sports become more competitive.

In fact, the way a youngster handles disappointments in sports and games tells a lot about how she handles frustrations in general. Bad losers find it harder to make and maintain friendships. They may also struggle with the difference between doing something bad and being someone bad  -- which leads them to think that they're only worthwhile if they win.

So what can you do to help your children handle frustrations with more aplomb? Here are some ideas:

Look at the subtle messages.

How do you treat your children when they win or lose a game? If you celebrate and hail them as heroes when they're winners, but only tell them things like, "Well, you tried" when they lose, they may interpret that as meaning that you value winning much more than effort or fun. Remember that professional athletes and other successful people focus their attention mostly on the changes in their own performance.

Talk about your own frustrations.

Kids who are sore losers often worry that any difficulty means that they'll be a disappointment to their parents. If you share your own shortcomings, especially memories of when you were your children's ages, they'll feel more accepted when they're frustrated.

Tell your children to keep trying.

If your youngsters know that you're proud of them simply for trying, they may stick with a situation or problem long enough to master it. That is, after all, one of the most important attitudes they can learn.

There are more emotional challenges faced by school-age kids than the five I've explored here. But if you can help your children handle these, they're well on their way to a successful adolescence.

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