Talk Is Cheap … And It Works!

There’s new evidence from a study done by the Economic and Social Research Council in the U.K. that mothers play a huge role in helping their kids develop good social skills and understanding simply by talking to them about how people might be feeling as things come up throughout the day.

The study followed 57 families over a period of years as their children grew from three to twelve. Initially, the moms were simply given pictures of children and adults doing everyday things like coming out of school looking happy or waiting in line looking bored or frustrated. Then they were instructed to talk to their child about what was happening in the picture.

The results across the board clearly showed that the children whose mothers had spent a lot of time talking about the mental states of the people in the pictures vs just the facts ended up scoring significantly higher in social skills and understanding. Years later the results stood firm.

We might think that this kind of learning and understanding takes place automatically but it does not. Children need tons of help in identifying their own feelings and those of the people around them, too. This is one of the key ways that they learn to care about others.

There are millions of opportunities to help your child learn these all important social skills and develop empathy every day, and it’s wise to look for them.

How, you might ask? Well, the next time you’re watching a movie or television show with your little one, take a moment to talk about how the characters feel when something unpleasant happens to them. For example, when one of the kids on Sesame Street loses his library book you could point out that he might feel sad or worried.

Or, if your little darling grabs a toy from another child at playgroup, you can explain to him how that action made the other child feel instead of just ordering him to give it back. The main thing is to keep talking and pointing these things out. Your words pack a powerful punch!

Another thing to keep in mind is that it’s not enough to just help identify your child’s emotions. You have to get in there and show him appropriate ways to express those feelings, too. Otherwise you may end up with a kid who screams “I”m really MAD” as he punches holes in the walls. Yes, it’s good that he knows what he’s feeling. But it’s not good that he thinks he can express those feelings however he wants to.

We’ve got enough of that type out there already, don’t we?

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Ellen and Rachel are two old friends and “expert” mamas—one a pediatrician and one a family therapist—with fifty years of parenting experience between them.


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