Q: Your 6-year-old ignores people when they speak to her. Can you help her tune in?
(from our panel of staff contributors)
Starting at age 6 with some gentle coaching is an excellent idea, because who hasn't tried to have a conversation with a teenager who won't look you in the eye? Depending on the child's personality (hyper-sensitive to bull-headed), adapt your coaching to suit the child. But steady reminders that it's important to look a person in the eye when he/she is talking to you — or you are talking to someone — is a life lesson that will take him/her right through everything from a job interview to a marriage proposal. And while you're at it, Mom and Dad, emphasize the importance of a firm handshake along with that eye contact. They're a package deal.
I'd gently explain that ignoring people who are talking to her is rude, and hurts other people's feelings. I'd teach her some standard responses (when someone asks, "How are you?," say, "Fine, thank you.") and teach the value of eye contact and smiling. And, sadly, I'd make sure she understood that strangers who strike up conversations when Mommy and Daddy aren't around are OK to ignore.
Step one, as they say, is admitting there's a problem. And there is.
"Sometimes people say, 'Oh, my child is shy,' " says Maribeth Kuzmeski, author of "The Engaging Child: Raising Children to Speak, Write and Have Relationship Skills Beyond Technology" (Red Zone Publishing). "So you sort of label them and tell yourself that's why they're not speaking to adults."
Shy or not, kids need to learn to engage with the world around them. (This is assuming you have a typically functioning child, of course.) Unfortunately, it has never been easier to tune the world out, thanks to ear buds and iPads and the countless devices conspiring to make your kid ignore Grandma.
You are more powerful than an iPad. Step in. Here's how Kuzmeski handles the problem in her own home.
Prioritize. "First, we teach our kids that people are more important than things," she says. "If a person walks in the room, especially an adult, they are now more important than what you're doing. Turn it over, push it aside, whatever you need to do."
Practice. "Prepare your child ahead of time with some information that may help them actually have a conversation. If you're going to a place where you know there will be adults, tell them who will be there and help them come up with things to talk about. 'Aunt Judy just took a trip to Canada. You could ask about her trip.' "
Improvise. Teach your child the power of a well-timed compliment. "My daughter actually taught me this. She said, 'When I can't think of anything to say to someone I compliment what they're wearing.' You don't have to know much about a person to say, 'I like your sweater.' And the next thing you know you're having a conversation and engaging in a different way."
Model. "If you tell your kids not to swear, you can't go around swearing all the time. It's the same with putting your technology down. I'll even announce, 'OK, I'm putting my laptop away for the night.' Not to say, 'Look how good I am,' but to model the behavior that it's OK to put this stuff away."
Think bigger. The problem goes way beyond technology, of course. "When you walk in a room, do you shake hands and look people in the eye? When you answer the phone, how do you talk to the telemarketer? Your children are learning how to treat other people. And they can't delineate between a telemarketer and your neighbor."
Have a solution?
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