As my daughter grows, I enjoy finding ways to move her out of her comfort zone. I call it the stretch. It's putting her in a basketball camp even though she's never played. It's giving her time with her bike-riding older friend so that she's frustrated that she can't ride and is more inspired to learn. It's encouraging her to communicate directly with adults, rather than use me as the go-between.
My daughter's favorite tactic is "Mom, can I tell you a secret?" Then she tries to whisper in my ear what she's afraid to ask the person standing next to us. For me the stretch means letting your kid feel some level of discomfort with an environment or experience in order to help them figure things out for themselves. Since she doesn't have an older sibling, this is part of my job. It's not overbearing or cruel. I want to show her what's out there, show her she can do more than she thinks, and show her that willingness and confidence matter.
There was an afternoon during the bike-riding session when she wouldn't let me let go of her bike, even though she could clearly pedal and balance. I couldn't keep up on foot. She didn't have the confidence to do the stop and start, nor did she want to fall over. I walked away after she yelled at me for letting go. Amazingly, she figured it out. When we got home she practiced on her own, in the driveway, on the sidewalk. A week later, we went on our first city ride with a group of adults and kids. She fell over twice. Did it bother her? Not at all. The pleasure of doing it by herself was more important.
Enjoying these growth pains for her sake is one thing — but what happens when you find yourself trying to teach your kid to stretch to do something you're not comfortable doing? Turning stretch tactics on yourself (Just do it! Be brave! I believe in you!) is harder than it seems. Take social skills. I began to wonder how I practice the stretch when I read how a child's social skills in kindergarten may affect their "success" decades later, as an adult. The study was published in the American Journal of Public Health. Back in 1991, teachers measured kindergartners' social skills — how well they could cooperate, how well they could resolve problems on their own, and how helpful and empathetic they were. The researchers tracked these students until they were 25. They found that children with greater social skills were much more likely to get a college degree and find full-time employment. The takeaway is that at a very early age, social skills matter and may predict your future stability. The researchers recommend that early intervention for children with measured social deficits could make important differences for children's later outcomes.
Given that these were just kindergartners, it seems that parents play a large role in teaching their kids social skills or giving their children opportunity to develop them. Now, I don't entirely lack social skills. But there are certain interactions I'll admit I'm not comfortable with. I don't like talking to people I don't know. I don't love small chat, especially with strangers. I may not look you in the eye when talking to you, and I'm bad at making introductions. As a more reserved person, I like to keep to myself when out and about, and I enjoy feeling alone and being alone. So even if I know you, I may not go out of my way to say hi or strike up a conversation. I may even pretend I didn't see you.
Of course, with my kids, I'm never alone. And I can't pretend I am alone, even if I tried. Sometimes it seems my daughter has never met a person she didn't already know. This was quite painful to me, at first. At other times, though, she will ignore adult questions and can barely look up at the person speaking with her. So I've adapted. I work harder at being socially present to help her. And when you have a kid, these sorts of casual interactions happen all the time. For example, the bus stop. I make sure we know the bus drivers' names, and the aides' names, and I make sure we, she and I, say good morning and goodbye to these tireless people, who we see day in, day out, for two-thirds of the year. I make sure that we say goodbye in other social situations. I make a practice of saying hi to other parents at the playground, and introducing myself to anyone we are playing with, and so on. I've shown her how to introduce herself to a new person or child. If a stranger poses a kind question in the drugstore, at the wading pool, etc., we respond. If a kid wants to play with her, I ask her not to ignore them, but show her how to say no politely. These may seem like small things, but I've realized, with a kid, they're important things, manners, and I'd do well to practice some of them myself. Even if it's a stretch.