How do kids learn to behave? By watching us.
In a promo for a cable show about children’s beauty pageants, a 4-year-old addresses the camera, saying: “I want to win ’cause I want to earn the monnnney!”
She has no idea what that means, really. She heard someone close to her say it. Certainly no adult sat this child down and directed her to make this goofy joke, but the children in our lives watch us. We are their role models, the examples upon which they model their behavior.
Formal education usually begins around age 5, when a child enters kindergarten. But according to current research in neuroscience, the human brain has grown to about 80 percent of its adult size by age 3. This explosion in brain development happens in response to the child’s environment; the words she hears, the comfort and love she receives, the books read to her, and the games she plays with family members. The sensory input your child is exposed to affects the way her brain grows, and which parts of the brain stay active and continue to develop.
Learning social skills
Even when parents and caregivers are unfamiliar with the science behind early brain development, many instinctually understand the importance of the first years and make sure their children enjoy games, books, outings, art projects, and similar exercises in beneficial fun. But our everyday interactions influence our children as much as the activities we schedule for them. Children study the people around them for clues about social behavior, and mimic our attitudes and behaviors. A parent’s cell phone conversation might make as much of an impact as the museum visit it interrupts.
The social skills children learn in their earliest years are strongly tied to school readiness. When children arrive at kindergarten, they are expected to have some basic knowledge of letters and numbers, but they also need to be able to resolve conflicts and to work as a group. The Urban Child Institute’s 2011 Data Book: The State of Children in Memphis and Shelby County says “the first three years are vital to the early development of emotional control and of the social skills that lead to school success.”
These social skills are learned at home, and aren’t necessarily linked to the activities and adventures you carefully plan for your child. They are learned from observation, from your child watching you interact with the people in your life. Do you listen when people, including your child, talk to you, or do you interrupt too often? Do you scream at other cars in traffic? Do you lie to a friend to get out of dinner plans? How do you talk to people like waiters and clerks? What do you say about people from other cultures and other ways of life?
The values you hold are important to who you are. They also affect your child and help determine the person she will become. Fun and educational activities that stimulate brain development are important, but your child is both smart and observant, so be aware that lessons are being learned at all times. Habits and tendencies that you aren’t particularly proud of, or may not even be aware of, may manifest in your children.