As an early childhood development researcher, I get to watch children play together each day. On a good day, it is a delight to watch the kids share toys, nurture their dolls, and discover new things. But on the bad days when something’s in the air, the research lab can have tension among kids – for example, kids may have trouble sharing or deciding on who will take on which role for their pretend play. As a parent, you know that kids are emotional, but they don’t necessarily understand their emotions, or how to react to the world around them.
As a researcher, I can tell you that studies have shown that learning skills like empathy, critical thinking, self-regulation and communication skills (aka, emotional intelligence) as a child can lead to success in school and in life. But if you’re not a teacher, the idea of incorporating lessons into your day can be daunting. The good news is, you can help them develop these skills through 5 activities you’re already doing.
Fixing something that’s broken
When a toy is broken, your child’s first instinct is to ask you for help. And most of the time it is way easier to fix it yourself then endure the crying that might follow. But broken toys can be a hidden opportunity to teach critical thinking, emotional regulation, and teamwork.
Here’s how: encourage your child to fix the toy on their own. Taking the time to let your child problem solve can encourage the development of critical thinking skills, while teaching them to regulate their frustration.
If they can’t fix the problem on their own, recommend they ask a friend or sibling to help. This fosters the idea of collaboration and teamwork. When they eventually fix the toy (to their standards), be sure to praise their hard work and perseverance.
While watching television
Believe it or not, television offers a great opportunity to learn a valuable skill: how to take turns and negotiate conflict. With all of the programming choices today, even adults can grapple with this challenge. But if we want our kids to be kind little people, there is no better place to teach them how to share and collaborate than in the instant gratification world of television. So next time you’re having TV time with your child, take turns picking the show. And if you have a group of kids over, let them make a decision on what to watch. And although it will be tempting to mediate the inevitable conflict, try to let the kids sort it out themselves.
During preschool or daycare drop-off
Drop-off time can be heartbreaking for parents and toddlers alike. But just as you’ve learned to set aside your emotions and continue adulting, your child needs to learn how to self-soothe. Because young children have no concept of time, saying “I’ll be back at 2 o’clock” will probably result in a meltdown. Instead, try saying “I’ll be back soon” so that they don’t feel abandoned, and understand that you’re coming back.
You can also try using a toy or security blanket to make them feel secure while you’re away. Whatever you do, keep in mind that little boys and little girls both need to understand that its ok to be sad or cry, and that they can be independent and have fun while you’re gone.
On a play date
Playdates, logistical nightmare though they may be, are a great way to instill myriad skills. From conversation skills and relationship-building to conflict resolution, playdates offer a great way for kids to interact in a safe environment, while encouraging independence. So, find a mom or two who you enjoy hanging out with, and let the kids play. For both your sanity’s sake, let this be a time for moms to enjoy some adult time, while kids get to explore (within reason, of course!).
Going to the Grocery Store
I know what you’re thinking. Grocery shopping is my only alone-time. But hear me out. Taking your child grocery shopping is worth the trouble. It can encourage them to try new foods if they have ownership over choosing tonight’s vegetable. You can also teach them how to interact appropriately with others as you navigate the store, purchase items at the register (it’s never too early to learn how money works), and select items. As always, make sure you reinforce good behavior and let them know when they’re doing a good job.
Of course, this task is a particularly perfect opportunity for a meltdown, especially if your child is prone to pulling new items into the cart. But patience on your part can help your child learn self-control, and feel like a “big kid.”
As you look for these opportunities and work with your child, remember not to stress about being perfect. You’re teaching your child how to navigate the world through your words and actions every day, and there is no right way to do it. These tips are just a few ways to incorporate lessons into everyday activities, with a little patience and mindfulness.