Main Reading, Social Interactions

Teaching Children to Interact Graciously

Before We Start: Set Them Up for Success

Teaching Children to Interact Graciously. It sounds like what every parent, teacher and caregiver dreams of, doesn’t it? Children saying “excuse me” when they want someone to move, saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ waiting patiently for another child to be done with something, stopping right away when they’re doing something that annoys someone and they’re asked to stop. Sounds like a fantasy world, almost. Doesn’t it?

Well, to a certain extent it is a fantasy—nobody can be pleasant all the time, and children get hungry and tired more easily than we do, and even normal interactions take more energy for them.  Remember that Children Are Like Tiny Foreignersand set them up for success.

Then it’s time to start teaching them. Interacting graciously is a SKILL: it is something that can be taught, and must be practiced regularly before a person can become good at it. If you haven’t already seen it, take a peek at my 3.5 minute video on teaching children “please” and “thank you.” See how many times we practice these things, over and over again!

OK, so skills have to be practiced. But what ARE the skills that it takes for children to interact graciously, especially with one another? During play, instead of a highly structured situation like we see in this video?  Well, now we’re getting to the real meat of the matter, because I believe that there are three stages to learning to interact graciously, and they must be done in a specific order, or they don’t work nearly as well. These stages are:

First: Teach children to notice how others are reacting to them and respond respectfully;

Second: Teach children to ask (politely) for what they want;

Third: Encourage children to interact with one another in ways that they both like.

The first step, teaching children to notice how others are reacting to them and respond respectfully, is the foundation for all social interaction.

This is a step that is often skipped or glossed over or assumed by parents and caregivers. We often jump straight to teaching kids to ask for what they want. “Use your words!” we hear people saying, over and over again. I actually hate that phrase, “Use your words;” I don’t find it to be very useful at all. I’ll tell you what I say instead, when we get to that section, but right now I want to get back to the foundation of social interactions, which is to notice how others react to you, and respond respectfully. Little Joey can say, “Stop hitting me. Stop hitting me,” till he’s blue in the face, but if the other child doesn’t listen and respond in an appropriate manner, then all those words are not actually useful tools for Joey, are they?

OK, let’s break this first step down into its component parts:

Help Children Notice How Others Are Receiving Their Actions.  This important skill is not only the foundation for social interactions, it’s the basis for developing empathy.  We adults, with our years of social interactions, have a very nuanced understanding of non-verbal cues: facial expressions, body language, etc. But young children don’t have this practice.  We kind of assume that they’ll just “pick it up,” but things can go much more smoothly for everyone if we help them learn this skill.

How to do it:  We can help children notice and interpret the meaning of other people’s body language by pointing out aspects of the other person’s reaction THAT YOUR CHILD CAN SEE for themselves.  So rather than saying, “She doesn’t like that,” I’ll say, “Look, she’s pulling away,” or,  “Look, she’s frowning,” or, “Do you hear her cry?” or, “She’s pushing you away.”  All of these things are physical actions that the child in question can clearly see.

After that, I “translate” what that body-language means.  Rather than translating it into labeling an emotion, I try to translate it into either: 1) words that I wish the other child were using, or 2) concrete actions for the child to take.  Sometimes I’ll do both.  So, for example, I might say:

“Look, she’s pulling away.  She’s saying, ‘I need more room.'”  If the child doesn’t then give her more room, I’ll add the concrete action:  “You can take a step back!”

Or:  “Look, she’s frowning.  She’s saying, ‘Please be gentle.'”  In that one, the words of the other child include the concrete action.

Or, “Do you hear her cry?  She’s saying, ‘That hurt me!’  You can touch her gently.”  That time I strung them all together.

Other times, I might skip the “she’s saying” part:  “She’s pulling away.  You can let her go.” Or, “She’s pulling away.  Why don’t you take a step back.”  Or, “She’s pulling away.  Why don’t you ask her if she wants a hug?”  In those cases, I go straight from the observation to the suggested action.

So, that’s it:  I point out the body language that tells me what’s going on, and then I either “translate” what the other child is trying to say, or I immediately suggest an appropriate action.  Which do I do when?  It just depends.  The reason I like to “translate” what the other child is trying to say is that with enough repetitions the other child will be able to say those words to him herself, without me there.  However, if the action needs to happen right away (the aggrieved child is shrieking, for example), or I just feel like I’ve been talking too much lately, then I’ll jump to the action.

What about positive interactions?  Do I point them out?  In general, I will only do this with a child who has trouble reading other children’s reactions, or if I’m nervous that things might turn south.  So, say we have little Max, 22 months, who always wants to hug his friends but then doesn’t let go.  There has been a history of him latching on, his grip getting tighter and tighter as the other child struggles to get away, until they both fall over and one or both children end up in tears.  So, I’ve been play-practicing hugs with Max, helping him learn to hug-and-release, hug-and-release.  I see him making his way over to Annie and I feel my stomach start to tighten up.  He gets to her and wraps his arms around her, and I’ll help him see how she’s reacting either way.  “Look, she’s smiling!  She likes that!”  But then it goes on too long.  “Oh, now she’s struggling.  She’s saying, ‘All done.'”  Pause.  “Take your hands away!” Pause.  “Oh, it looks like you needs some help taking your hands away.”  Then I head over and “help” him take his hands away.  “You’re just learning to hug your friends gently.”

This leads us to the final step in this foundation of social interactions, because just noticing how other react is not enough: you then have to respond respectfully.  I will suggest to a child what a respectful response might be, and they can either do that or do something else that works for everyone.  But if they don’t, then I will step in and help them respond respectfully.  With the little ones like Max and his hugging, this feels easy.  With older children, they can push our buttons much more easily with this.  For example, say we have Eli, age 3, and his little brother Caleb, six months.  Eli goes up to where Caleb is lying on the carpet and starts poking at him.  I know that Eli often gets too rough with Caleb, and I feel my stomach tighten up.  Instead of jumping in with a “be careful!” I watch.  At first, Eli is poking at Caleb, and Caleb is giggling.  I “notice” this out loud.  “Caleb’s giggling.  He likes it!”  This continues for a bit, but Eli starts getting more and more rough.  I hear Caleb start to complain.  “Do you hear Caleb’s whine?  He’s saying, ‘That’s too rough!'”  Eli backs off for a moment, but then he ramps it up again.  Caleb starts to cry.  I’m drying my hands to come over and help.  “Oh, Caleb’s crying.  He’s saying, ‘Please stop!'”  Eli responds, “I want him to cry.”

Youch!  What do you do?  Here’s what I might do:  “It’s important to be kind.  If you can’t touch Caleb gently, then you’ll need to come away until you’re ready to to interact in ways that you both can enjoy.”  I am heading their way.  At this point, there are a few things that could happen.  One possibility is that Eli will shape up, in which case I’ll come over and give him some positive interactions: perhaps a little physical fun since he clearly wants to rough-house a little.

The other possibility is that Eli will look directly at me and push the baby.  Sigh.  I rush over and give my attention to the baby.  When I know he’s OK, I turn to Eli, take him by the hand, and lead him to the couch.  If I’m doing well I remember to get sad, not mad.  I look him in the eye and say with concern, “Hey, it’s important to be kind.  What’s going on?”  Eli looks at the ground and doesn’t say anything.  If I’m doing extra-well I might try,  “Maybe you just need a hug.”  I wrap him up in my arms and pour some loving into him.  If he melts into me I’ll snuggle him some more.  Once he signals that he’s almost done with the snuggle I might say, “If you feel like you need a hug again later, you don’t have to push the baby.  You can just say, ‘Miss Faith, can I have a hug, please?'”  Then I’ll be happy to give you a hug and a snuggle.”  (Pause.)  “Now, are you ready to touch Caleb gently again?”

Of course, I’m not always doing extra-well.  Another day, or another time, I might pull Eli over to the couch, ask him what’s going on, and then look him in the eye and say, “It’s important to be kind ALL THE TIME.  You can come to the kitchen with me and help me with dinner until you’re ready to be gentle again.”  Eli protests, and I have to make a split-second decision.  Do I say, “Are you ready to be kind and gentle?” and give him another chance, or do I say, “No, Caleb asked you to be gentle and you chose to push.  You’ll be able to try again in a little bit.”  If I bring him into the kitchen, then I do my best to use the SMILE techniques.  Siblings are much better able to interact with one another when they’re getting love from you.  In fact, (and I know that this might not not be a popular suggestion, but it’s important) it’s SUPER important for older siblings to get some one-on-one time with you.  If this feels impossible, think creatively.  Perhaps your special time is washing dishes together while Dad takes the little one upstairs after dinner.  Perhaps baby’s morning nap is special Mom-Caleb time. Make it a priority! Young children often feel anxious to the point of panic that they are losing their mom’s love when a new child comes.  Read this mom’s experience with this. Her kids are a little older, but I was really touched by her story:

One more thought on responding respectfully.  I have a rule at my daycare, and it is this: “Stop means take your hands away.”  I find this to be a very useful rule, because as I’ve mentioned many times in my blog, young children don’t know how to “stop.” Young children live in the will and they go-go-go. They can’t “stop.” But they CAN do something else. For instance: Take their hands away.  So at Rainbow Bridge, “Stop means take your hands away,” and that gives them something to DO that is different from what they are doing. The vast majority of the time, if a child says “stop”, the problem is alleviated if the other child takes her hands away. So whenever I have children together, I listen with my eagle ear, and whenever I hear someone saying ‘stop’ (or preferably, ‘please stop’), I’ll turn around, and I’ll watch. If the child doesn’t stop, I’ll move in and say, “Oh! I hear Jessie saying stop!” Right? I’m helping them to listen to their friend. Then, if they don’t stop, I’ll remind them, “stop means take your hands away.” And, if they still can’t do it, “It looks like you need some help taking your hands away,” and I’ll help them. There doesn’t have to be any blame, it’s just them learning to follow the rules, just like any other rules: don’t go upstairs without a grownup, don’t open the fridge without asking first, etc.

With older children, including older siblings, ‘stop’ may be more complex than ‘Take your hands away,’ but by the time it IS more complex, children are capable of understanding what’s being asked of them. Regardless, the same rule still applies: listen for children saying ‘please stop,’ and make sure that such requests are respected right away. When you have this as part of the culture in your home or in your classroom, then the lion’s share of interacting graciously has been achieved. The foundation has been laid.



The second step in helping children interact graciously is to teach them to say what they want.

The listening piece has to come first, but once the children know that you place value on responding to others’ requests, and that it’s expected, you can then help children verbalize their own requests. And I don’t do this by saying “Use your words!” Children learn through imitation, so if you wish they were saying something, tell them what you wish they were saying. Chances are VERY high that they will repeat exactly what you say, in exactly the same tone of voice you use.

By the way, this is a VERY effective technique to use with kids who are whiny. Instead of saying, “stop whining,” or “talk in a big-kid voice,” try this instead: They say: “I want juuuuuiccce!” You say, “May I have some juice, please?” (pause). 9 times out of 10, what you get back is, “May I have some juice, please?” If I don’t, it’s almost surely because that child is too tired, or too hungry, or too overstimulated. So I stop, I give them a big dose of compassion (usually in the form of a hug), and I help them get what they need.

But back to social interactions. Often, when we see one child do something that’s annoying, we jump in and tell them to stop, right? Say little Johnny is running the toy truck into his sister over and over again. Sister is trying to ignore him, but you can tell she’s getting annoyed. Instead of saying, “Johnny, stop that!”, I say instead, “Susie, you could say, ‘please stop!’” This may seem like a trivial difference, but it is actually profound. The first is exerting your authority over Johnny, the second is laying the groundwork for them to be able to solve future issues on their own. I’m not solving the problem, I’m facilitating the discussion between the two of them.

Some common suggestions I make are: “You can say, ‘please stop.’” “You can say, ‘I’m using this right now.’” “You can say, ‘please don’t hit me.’” In fact, I sometimes facilitate an entire conversation this way, with kids who are just learning these skills:

When I hear two children struggling over something, the first thing I do is acknowledge what’s happening. “It looks like you both want that toy.” Sometimes (especially with kids who have been with me for a long time), my noticing out loud is enough. But often it’s not. So I acknowledge what’s going on, and if tempers are high I might give a brief order to calm things down, and then I facilitate a discussion between them.

-JJ (age 3): “I was playing with this and then Jordie came up and tried to take it away from me.”

-Me: “Oh! Did you tell him, ‘I’m playing with this right now’?”

-JJ looks at me and shakes his head.

-Me: “Why don’t you try telling him that now? ‘I’m playing with this right now.’”

-JJ: “I’m playing with this right now.”

-Then Jordie, who is only 2, says, “I want it.”

-I suggest, “Why don’t you ask, ‘Can I have a turn when you’re done?’”

-But Jordie says, “I want it now.”

-Me: “Oh, I see. Well, you could ask! ‘Can I use this right now?’ But, he might say yes and he might say no. Go ahead, ask him! ‘Can I use this right now?’”

-JJ: “No!”

-Me: “You can say, ‘You can use it when I’m all done.’”

So do you see? It feels a little orchestrated, because it is (of course, usually I don’t have to re-phrase EVERYTHING). But when I do this, I’m not the adult coming in and solving the problem, I’m a facilitator who’s helping the kids sort it out for themselves. I also do this when children come up and report problems they’re having. When a child comes to me and says, “Kevin was hitting me,” I say, “Oh! What did you do?” Then I suggest, “Next time, you could tell him, ‘please don’t hit me!’” Or if a child says, “Katie won’t let me play with her,” I say, “Why don’t you say, ‘We all play together here at Rainbow Bridge.’” I don’t step in and tell Kevin or Katie myself, unless it’s really needed. Instead, I’m facilitating a discussion between them. Some day, those children will be able to have that conversation all by themselves, without me helping. I’m teaching them how to interact graciously.

Another, more nuanced piece of teaching children to ask for what they want, revolves around phrasing and tone of voice. The ‘pleases’ ‘thank yous’ and ‘excuses mes’ are the lubrication of social interaction. Teaching children how to ask for things they want in a way that makes others want to say ‘yes’ is a skill that will serve them for life. This should ideally start as soon as children can talk, but it continues to evolve as a child gets older. In the video, you saw how I start with cuing a child to say “more, please!” but then move on to, “may I have some more, please?” Likewise, from the time they’re little I will cue a child to say to another, “please stop!”, but the older child I will make it more complete: “please stop hitting me.” “Please stop taking my toy.” I’m using what they learned before, then expanding it. Both content and tone of voice are important, and I help remind children as they learn to interact graciously.

The third step in helping children interact graciously is to encourage them to do things together in ways that they both like.

When children are used to interacting in positive ways, they are less likely to get upset if that child later takes their toy or knockes them over by accident. Also, they become skilled at negotiating with each other in a positive way. So encouraging children to interact in ways that they both like is important.

There a few ways to do this: when Sophie comes up to you and asks you to tie a silk around her neck, say, “Why don’t you ask Michael for help? I bet he’d help you tie your silk.” And when you see children helping one another, notice it out loud. “Look! You two are carrying that chair together!” My last summer at Rainbow Bridge, I started a new technique for sending children to the bathroom. I’d say, “Kate, it’s your turn to go to the bathroom, and when you get back, tell Joey it’s his turn.” It took a little work because at the beginning, the children weren’t used to listening to each other in this way, but I helped them: “I heard Kate telling you it’s your turn to go potty.” And after awhile I started to notice that children got better at doing what they asked of one another, and their play grew more cooperative.  So if you have siblings in your home, encourage them to go to one another for help as much as you can.

Another way to facilitate play is to help a child who wants to join the play, but doesn’t know how. So if two children are playing house, and a third is watching, you might suggest to him that he’s a neighbor who could knock on the door for a visit. When older children are objecting to littler ones who are ‘ruining’ their game, brainstorm with the bigger kids how they could incorporate the little one. One often-successful way to do this is to let the little one be some sort of animal: a kitty who needs some milk, a pet dog who wants some petting. This often feels satisfying to the little one, and is not too disruptive to the bigger ones. Then you might take the pet dog for a walk, distracting him from the big kids’ play.

One thing that can help children interact graciously is to have clear rules about toys, and who gets to play with them when. We have a few “rules” around toys at Rainbow Bridge that make our lives much, much easier. Here they are:

1) You can only use a toy that nobody is using.

2) If you’re using a toy, you can play with it for as long as you want, but once you put it down it’s for anyone to use.

3) If a ‘baby’ (anyone under 2 is a baby at RB) grabs a toy you’re using, you must find another toy to give them before you take your toy back.

These three rules are super, super helpful. Letting children know that they can have a toy for as long as they want actually decreases the hoarding. When a child wants a toy that another child has, I’ll say, “Anna’s using that right now. You can find a toy that NOBODY’S using. Where IS a toy that nobody’s using?” Then I’ll look around and help them find one. If they can’t be distracted, I’ll suggest, “Why don’t you ask her if you can use that when she’s done?” (He’ll know she’s done when he sees it on the shelf or on the floor.) He can ask her, and I’ll help her respond, “Yes, you can use this when I’m ALL DONE.”

Later, he picks it up and Anna screams, “No, that’s mine!” I’ll look at her and say, “Were you using that before?” She nods. I say, “I saw you using that before. Now it’s Nicolas’s turn. You can find a toy that nobody is using.” Etc. etc., into infinity. Eventually they get the hang of it, really! Here’s how it unfolds: A little boy (24 months) wants a toy another boy is using. The bigger boy says, “I’m using this right now. You can have it when I’m all done.” The little boy looks around in a really obvious way, finds a toy on the floor, and picks it up to play with. I don’t have to step in at all.

And finally, I have a strict rule of inclusion at Rainbow Bridge. This came at the end of a year full of girls who were very into who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out,’ and everybody was miserable. At first, I had some sort of idea that I should leave them alone, and let them try and figure it out on their own, and this is what they were naturally going through. But then I thought, two-year-olds naturally go through hitting, and I don’t just ‘let them figure it out.’ I show them how it’s appropriate to act, and what’s expected. I let them know that respectfulness and kindness are values that we strive for. Why should this stop just because they’re verbal? The rule is, that at Rainbow Bridge, we are all there to play together. So if a child asks, “Can I play with you?” the appropriate answer is, “Of course.” If two girls are in the play-house and another child says, “Can I come in?” the appropriate answer is, “Of course.” We are all here to play together. As soon as I implemented this rule, it was like there was a collective sigh of relief in my program.

((Of course in a home, it is appropriate for siblings to have some time without each other. Help your older sibling ask for time alone in a respectful way, and help him set it up (perhaps he can play in the livingroom while you take the baby into the kitchen with you, etc.). Teach older children to lure the littlies away from their games with other toys: the savvy older brother sees the baby crawling over, grabs a toy and starts playing with it with the baby, then gives it to her. Babies are usually happy with this.))

I encourage these ‘values’ of inclusion by telling the story and doing the Circle of that wonderful story “The Mitten,” where all of the animals squeeze into a mitten together and then at the end they come flying out when the bear sneezes. Each time an animal asks to join, the other animals respond, “Of course! There’s always room for one more!” Now, occasionally in real life there really ISN’T room for one more, and then I will help the children brainstorm how to incorporate little Susie while she’s outside of the playhouse: they can pass her tea and toast out the window, they can send her on a shopping trip to bring them food, they can tell her, “We’ll be out in a moment!”

This idea of inclusion was born out of desperation on my part, but later I realized that it’s really part of the Foundation of Social Interactions that I talked about earlier, but for older kids: noticing how others react, and responding respectfully to requests; in this case, the request isn’t ‘please stop,’ it’s ‘can I play with you?’ But the principle is the same. You can also be firm in the idea that your family values inclusion, or respectfulness, or friendliness, or however you want to think of it. But asking children for what you DO want is always more effective than telling them what you don’t want. So when your 9-year-old daughter tells her little brother, “Get out of my room!” You might say, “Please use a friendly voice: ‘I’d like to be alone right now.’” Give her the words and the tone, just like you would to a two-year-old. Then, help little brother listen and respond to her request, if he doesn’t on his own. “Tommy, I heard your say she’d like to be alone.”

We’re teaching children the skills to interact graciously. We help them practice these skills over and over again: the skills of listening and responding respectfully; of asking for what you want, in a way that encourages people to say ‘yes’; and of interacting together in ways that everyone enjoys. And gradually, as you practice these skills together, the children are able to play more and more on their own, without your intervention and facilitation. It’s not a fast fix, it’s a process. But what greater skills could be possibly teach them?


Some Additional Posts I’ve Written on Social Interactions:

Sharing and Taking Turns

Responding to Biting

Toddler/Infant Sibling Interactions

Balanced Children

Responding to Drama (this is one on sibling interactions, as well)

Why I Don’t Use Sorry

(put in link on recovering from disappointment, also)

Share Comments on this Post:


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Get every new post on this blog delivered to your Inbox.

Join other followers: