By Emily Edlynn.
As a child psychologist, I knew the textbook importance of all areas of child development long before I became a mother. Little did I know the real-world pressures on parents for their children to excel and reach goals that society has decided are important. When I was pregnant with my first child, living in Los Angeles, I decided we had to move when people repeatedly asked me if my unborn child was on a kindergarten waiting list yet.
In my roles both as mother and psychologist, I know these academic pressures can start really young, and parents worry about whether preschool is preparing their child enough for kindergarten. Of course, this anxiety skyrockets when these kids are in high school getting ready for college. But we may all be losing focus on what matters most for our children’s futures.
Research has shown over and over how important social relationships are across the lifespan, from infant brain development, to being an adult with lower risk of mental and physical health problems.
School matters, but relationships matter more.
Most parents I know say that what they want most for their children is for them to be happy. If that’s true, then we need to care more about how our kids are learning to interact and relate with other people, than how quickly they are learning to read chapter books and do multiplication.
5 Reasons to Care about Social Skills More than School:
1) Play Dates Over Hours of Homework
Decades of research show that social skills in childhood and adolescence are the strongest predictors of success in college and later in life. It matters more than grade point average, test scores, or sports trophies.
2) Work Hard AND Play Hard Is True
Recent research shows that academics are actually linked to social skills, so they go hand-in-hand rather than competing with each other. One recent study of kids in a social skills program in elementary school showed they improved academically after the program.
3) Let’s All NOT Get Along
We all want our kids to get along, but conflict can be just as important as harmony. Whether it’s figuring out who gets to play with the toy both toddlers want, or a fight over hurt feelings in middle school, conflict is a part of life and the better we deal with it, the better our relationships. Kids need the opportunity to have conflict to build these skills, which is more likely when they have unstructured play without adult supervision.
4) The Key to Happiness
It’s simple and common sense, but also shown in research: having close, meaningful relationships makes us happy no matter our age. We know that teenagers with depression and anxiety have lower quality social relationships, likely because their symptoms are getting in the way of socializing. In fact, a huge part of treating these symptoms is to encourage MORE time with positive friends. People with all different kinds of problems are more likely to manage these problems well when they have strong networks of support.
5) Who Am I?
Every child is figuring out their sense of self in different ways as they get older. First, young kids learn who they are outside of the family unit when they engage with the world in daycare or other opportunities without their parents. In elementary school, being around even larger groups of other kids pushes them to start identifying who THEY are with basic labels. Teenagers are famous for “trying on” different personalities as they figure out their identity in the larger world. This experimentation likely involves different kinds of friend groups. All of this identity development is a function of social relationships: Who am I with others? Who am I in this world?
There is no doubt that school is a hugely important part of a child’s development. Doing well in school earns more than a good grade point average; it builds work ethic, critical thinking skills, self-esteem, and of course knowledge.
So to be clear: I’m not saying, “Just forget about school and focus on friends!” I think many of us need to find a balance of where we are focusing that better reflects what we know about how essential social skills are to every other part of life. Although school success can pay off in many ways for our kids’ futures, it is clear that who surrounds our kids while they grow and learn, and how our kids relate to each other, matter even more.
Dr. Edlynn is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog. She is a child psychologist and mother of three children, ages 8, 6, and 3. Her mission is helping families find calm in the chaos of modern parenting by blending science and instinct. She can also be found at ,