I’m reading a fascinating book called Crucial Conversations, by Kerry Petterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler. It’s been sitting on my proverbial nightstand for at least a year now, and after hearing it recommended again from about a fourth source – from education administrators to business execs to parents – I decided I’d better start reading.
As I read about the importance of effective communication in difficult situations, my mind bounces from the perspective of an adult working with adults, and one who works with children. Though this book is written for adults, and really emphasizes the corporate world, I’ve been struck once again by the importance of teaching children social skills and effective communication.
One passage in particular came with great impact as I read it from the perspective of a parent and a teacher. In it, the authors point out that the majority of first-time violent crime offenders are not actually the stereotypical thugs or the twisted sociopaths we tend to picture. To the contrary, more than half of those convicted of first violent offenses commit those acts against friends or loved ones. They are the otherwise “normal” neighbors who simply snap under the pressure of the moment, or the mounting strain of a long unresolved conflict.
The authors point out these facts at the outset of the book, establishing the need for the problem-solving and mediating skills laid out in its contents. These are skills they set out to promote in professionals. Yet they are also skills for our children.
As the authors write, “Since they don’t know what to say or how to say it, they opt for force.” This sentence came off the page with a hint of familiarity. The same thing could be (and has been) said of children. When they lack the language skills or the social grace, they often act out with aggression. It’s easier, faster, and biologically speaking, more in line with our fight or flight impulse.
As I imagine these offenders mentioned, I imagine some of the children I have worked with. Some who seem to have the best of intentions and sincere hearts, but who struggle with impulse control or social grace. In moments of frustration they take the easier, familiar road and simply grab, yell, push, or hide. They aren’t bad kids. They just need more skills. They need the same social skills I try to promote in all of the children I love and teach. The same skills good teachers and parents everywhere are building in their children.
I think of the value of teaching children social problem-solving, of validating their emotions, of promoting empathy, and building language skills for communication. How much heartbreak would be reduced if the adults in these statistics had been taught as children to regulate and express their emotions?
At the other end of the spectrum, the authors discuss research displaying the impact of these effective communication and problem-solving skills in those with successful careers and running thriving businesses. These are the skills that seem to make the biggest difference between those who succeed in life and those who struggle through it.
Couldn’t we do the same for the children we love and teach? Wouldn’t supporting their social-emotional growth contribute to their personal success as well as the culture of our homes and classrooms?
I know it would.
It’s something I write about often here, as well as in my ebook. It isn’t enough to teach our children reading and math and consider them educated. We can’t simply look at silent rows and proclaim them well-behaved. We need to get into the messy work of supporting social-emotional develoment in our children. We need to give them supported opportunities to work through challenges, to talk through feelings, and weigh out choices.
It takes more time. It takes more energy. Sometimes we have to allow them to fail in order for them to learn to really succeed. But we owe it to the children we love and teach to give them all the skills they need to succeed not just in school, but in life.
Top photo by Shannon Pifko.