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The Importance of Social-Emotional Development

Lise Eliot
The Importance of Social-Emotional Development

Facebook figured it out: We humans are a highly social species. This tendency is present from a child’s earliest days and is essential to most of their learning.

Babies learn to make eye contact, smile, laugh, frown and even adapt their cry, all for the purpose of communicating with others. Their verbal skills, which are critical for communication and learning, are acquired exclusively through social relationships. Emotions, while present in their rawest form at birth, acquire meaning and purpose only through social give-and-take. And then there is the rest of human culture—the knowledge, values, and skills that we pass down and expand upon in each successive generation. Social interaction is the key that unlocks all of children’s most important learning.

With that said, parents should be aware of how children’s opportunities to interact with us have been eroded by modern life. Even if we have the luxury of being home together during the work week, the demands of today’s society and especially, the distractions of technology mean that parents and children are both diverted away from what is truly the healthiest, most enriching opportunity available:
one-on-one social interaction. It’s hard—but well worth it—to make real quality time for each other, by turning off the TV and tablet, shutting the laptop, stowing away our phones and focusing together on a shared activity like reading aloud, artistic creation or playing a game.

Contrary to the advice parents heard a generation ago, children today do not need more stimulation—if anything, they get too much sensory overload from our increasingly complex environment. But what they do need is responsive, sensitive interaction with their parents and other caregivers. This means being aware of your child’s cues and meeting his or her needs (without over-indulging), but also providing the structure and limits that children cannot provide for themselves but are essential to steer their growth in a healthy direction.

Through warm, accepting relationships, children learn to recognize and empathize with other people’s feelings. They also come to appreciate and respect the differences between people and how to engage in the give-and-take of healthy relationships. And equally important, they learn to detect the seeds of conflict and how to prevent and resolve disagreements when they do arise.

Before long, your child’s social-emotional learning will move beyond the family. As he or she enters larger social networks in school and the community, you can help your child make friends and extend all of these deeply important skills to the larger world they will soon call their own.
Meet our Expert Advisory Panel
Deborah Sharp Libby
Early Childhood Language and Reading Expert
Lise Eliot
Early Childhood Mental Development Expert
Helen Boehm
Psychologist, Author, and Parenting Resource Expert
Carla C. Johnson
Science and STEM Expert
Susan Bartell
Child Psychology Expert
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