Teaching children how to behave in a social group

From Nine To Noon, 11:24 am on 5 May 2016

For children learning the rules, rights and responsibilities of being part of a group is an essential part of their development.

But how do they learn this? And what should parents do if a child breaks the "social contract".

Maori children

Photo: AFP

Education consultant and parenting commentator, Joseph Driessen discusses this with Kathryn Ryan.

Read an edited snapshot of their conversation

KR: Do some kids just naturally sort this themselves?

JD: I think many children just absorb this and the family help to absorb this. I think other children are quite unaware. They’re not much self-centred, they’re overwhelmed by their own needs and emotions and they just charge on without realising what they’re doing. They need to be sat down and talked to about how [they] are affecting others and what are the rules of a group.

KR: At what ages does this typically start to happen?

JD: Two-years-old. The two-year-old is a wonderful stage because at two years old a new programme emerges in their brain which is to say ‘no’ and to assert their own independence and autonomy – a vital skill for an adult to have.

KR: For children at a very young age how does the conceptual understanding develop? What’s going on in their development understating on this?

JD: Most children they say please and they say you’ve got to say 'thank you', so they copy that so they learn all the time that there are social etiquettes, and niceties, and rules. But I think the main problem is that some children have a very intense emotional life and when they anxious or they want something they get quite overwhelmed by their feelings, they are solo operators launching themselves into space trying to meet their needs. So they need that emotional modulation just to keep on working at it.

KR: So it’s more than just ‘if I do this, I will get that’ that you get to develop that very nascent and very important, at that age, concept of empathy?

JD: Exactly, an understanding of mind reading, that understanding that other people have their feelings and their rights, to realise it’s a very complex game. And that’s why children learn that from their parents talking that it is sort of a contract or rule. You’ve got to do your thing, you’ve got to help the other person… Active nurturing, active kindness to another child is, in fact, a developed neural circuit of empathy and caring.

KR: What age are those neural circuits kicking into action full?  And at what age is that you do spend time ensuring that they’re getting exercised and developing?

JD: Two – again. It’s very early. Little children are amazingly empathetic. Once they realise - say there is a crisis at home with a baby often a two-year-old will help and say ‘the baby is sad and I’ll do something about it’.

Coaching your child: the social contract
    Discussing the nature of rights and responsibilities in a social group
    Helping the child clarify what these are in their situation
    Exploring with the child what happens when an adult does not keep the social contract
    Exploring with the child what should happen when they break the social contract
    Explaining restoring the social contract through:
1.    Accepting responsibility for their action
2.    Exploring with the child how others have been affected
3.    Making an undertaking to keep the social contract in future
4.    Making up for their mistake in order to restore trust (saying sorry is not enough: actions speak louder than words)