"green holiday ornaments"Nine Ways to Help Your Kids (Politely!) Connect and Communicate This Holiday Season

Just like adults, kids are required to navigate a variety of social settings throughout the holidays. Maribeth Kuzmeski shares expert advice on how to help your kids behave appropriately and engage meaningfully with everyone from the grocery store clerk to Grandma and Grandpa.

“Aww, man! I wanted a new game for my Xbox, not another sweater.” Or, “…click…click…” (That’s the sound of a teenager texting instead of answering Aunt Debbie’s question.) If you’re a parent, you’ve been there at one point or another, and you know that a child’s social missteps—even if they aren’t purposeful or malicious—can be mortifying.

According to Maribeth Kuzmeski, the holiday season is when parents tend to notice most acutely which of their kids’ habits could use improvement—after all, friends and family are there to witness what you see as an embarrassing display that reflects poorly on your parenting skills.

“As a parent myself, I know that in the everyday hurry and worry of life, it’s easy to let your kids’ smaller foibles go uncorrected,” admits Kuzmeski, author of the new book The Engaging Child: Raising Children to Speak, Write, and Have Relationship Skills Beyond Technology. “And once you’re in the midst of the packed holiday social season, it’s too late to correct behaviors you previously overlooked. The good news is, there’s no better time than now to take advantage of teachable moments, before all of those parties and gatherings begin.”

Giving parents the tools they’ll need to help their children develop a strong ability to connect with others is the focus of Kuzmeski’s latest book. It’s packed full of strategies and techniques that will teach kids to engage others meaningfully and productively, a skill that—according to research—plays a huge role in driving personal and professional success. As an added bonus, the last two chapters of the book are written by Kuzmeski’s seventeen-year-old daughter, Lizzie. They are meant to be read by Lizzie’s fellow teens and tweens in order to provide a peer’s perspective on the elements of building and maintaining real relationships in a wired and fast-paced world.

“My experience as a professional and as a parent has convinced me that one of the most valuable gifts you can give your kids is to teach them how to effectively engage with others in a variety of settings,” Kuzmeski confirms. “And the holiday season provides a wealth of opportunities to demonstrate and practice those skills.”

Kuzmeski recommends taking stock of all of the parties, pageants, and social settings you’ll be attending with your kids in the upcoming weeks, and deciding beforehand what habits and skills you’d like them to demonstrate.

“Don’t assume that your child ‘would never’ act in a certain way, or even that he or she ‘knows better’ than to engage in a particular behavior,” she advises. “Remember, kids don’t always know intuitively when they need to be on their best behavior, and they can’t ‘fake it’ as easily as adults can. The truth is, young people aren’t as disengaged and rude as we assume them to be—they just don’t always know the proper way to act. So start having these discussions now, not when you’re parking at Grandma’s house. And always, always be sure to model appropriate behaviors yourself!”

The more you practice good connecting skills with your children, the more they’ll become ingrained as habits. Here are nine holiday situations that Kuzmeski recommends using to instill productive communicating skills in your kids:

Teach them that sometimes it’s cool to unplug. One of the biggest complaints that adults have with “young people today” is that they’re always “plugged in.” To some extent, that’s true—email, social networking, text messaging, mp3 players, and more have radically changed the way this generation communicates and spends its free time. Now, technology isn’t bad in and of itself, but we all know that it can lead to disengaged and even rude behavior—especially at holiday gatherings. You’ll probably meet with some resistance, but it’s important to teach your kids when they need to step away from the keyboard, and why face-to-face interactions are the most rewarding of all.

“Place a basket at the door during any family event and collect all electronic devices before the mingling starts,” Kuzmeski suggests. “Include a note on the basket that reads, ‘So you can enjoy the friends and family you’re with.’ Explain to your kids how important it is to engage fully with people you love, especially if you don’t see certain individuals during the rest of the year. Point out that if they stay distracted by text messages and Facebook friends, they’ll miss out on fun and memories with cousins, grandparents, and siblings. Plus, kids need to understand that not giving others your attention is just plain rude…and that it won’t be allowed in your family.”

Arm them with ice breakers. For youngsters who spend most of their days “LOLing,” “BRBing,” and “TTYLing,” having a good old-fashioned verbal conversation might be unfamiliar, if not downright intimidating. Especially if your child isn’t a natural chatterbox, it might be helpful to give him a few ideas of how he can strike up a discussion with people he doesn’t see every day.

Explain the importance of expressing gratitude. We live in a “me, me, me” society, and even more than adults, kids tend not to think far beyond their own emotions and experiences. (Don’t blame them; much of it is biological.) During the holidays, that selfish hardwiring tends to manifest itself in a cursory “Thanks for my present!” before the child in question runs off to play with her new loot or rip open the next package. This year’s gift-swapping is a good opportunity for your kids to learn how to express gratitude in a much more meaningful way.

“Explain to your children before the first round of presents is handed out why it’s important to show gratitude,” Kuzmeski says. “Make sure they understand that each present represents the fact that another person cares about them and spent time and money to make them happy. Then, talk about meaningful ways to show gratitude. Perhaps it’s setting aside a few minutes after gift giving to say thanks privately to the gift giver. For example, your daughter might say, ‘I really appreciate the new coat, Grandma. I’ve been eyeing it forever and I can’t tell you how excited I am to finally have it!’ You might also suggest that your children keep a small pad and pen so that they can jot down what they received, and from whom. Later, set aside some time to sit down and write thoughtful thank-you notes together.”

Make sure they mind their manners. During a typical weekday dinner on almost any given day of the year, you might decide to let a muttered, “Eeew, this is gross,” pass without comment. After all, you’re tired from a long day at work and you really don’t have the desire or the energy to disrupt the meal with a lecture. However, the same under-the-breath comment at your mother-in-law’s Christmas extravaganza is the last thing you want to hear from your son. (And that’s only one of many potentially embarrassing situations that might crop up.) Therefore, take advantage of every opportunity to reinforce politeness and to explain why various behaviors aren’t appropriate.

Empower them while you’re traveling. Plenty of families pack up and hit the road to visit family during the holiday season. You may be tempted to handle everything on your own for the sake of convenience, but Kuzmeski asserts that this is a wonderful opportunity to empower your children by allowing them to navigate “adult” situations.

“Capitalize on all of the teachable moments that arise as you travel with your family,” she reiterates. “For example, let your daughter interact with the hotel receptionist and take care of all check-in aspects except the payment.”

Help them to host an event. For most of us, the holiday calendar will be peppered with social events. Your family might even be hosting your own festive get-together. If that’s the case, teach your child the value of being a host and “working” his own party. If you’re throwing a neighborhood gathering, for example, go with your child as he travels from door to door personally inviting each family on your street. Assuming your guests live farther away, sit with him as he phones those to whom he’s closest and asks them to attend your soiree.

“Once the big event is here, have your child greet all of his friends when they arrive,” Kuzmeski instructs. “Then, ask him to keep an eye open to make sure that everyone feels welcome and included—while enjoying himself, of course! You can also help him to direct the flow of the party. (‘Now we’re going to play pin the tail on Rudolph!’ Or, ‘If you need more sprinkles for decorating your gingerbread man, just let me know!’) Lastly, teach him to thank all of the guests for attending as they leave. The fact is, many people don’t learn these skills until they’re adults, so you’ll be giving your child a major leg up.”

Help them connect at the cash register. ’Tis the season for shopping, and the fact is, if you want good service, you must first be a good customer. Learning the value of connecting with the people you do business with—from clients and vendors right down to the lady who checks you out at the grocery store—can mean better experiences for you and for them. While your kids won’t be pitching their company’s product or trying to compromise with a contractor for years to come, they can definitely start learning the skills that will help them do so.

“The next time you and your kids head out to the market or to the mall, help them figure out how to engage with store employees,” Kuzmeski recommends. “Suggest that they thank an employee who showed you where to find an item, let a manager know about a great service experience, or ask the cashier, for once, how his or her day is going.”

Make sure they deliver teacher gifts. It may seem silly to adults who have been conducting their own affairs for years, but personally delivering a gift to an authority figure—particularly a teacher—can be difficult for kids to do. Often, it’s a brand-new way in which to interact with this respected adult, and many children simply aren’t sure how to proceed.

“Instead of having your child leave a gift anonymously on her teacher’s desk, or even handing it over and racing away in embarrassment, coach her on how to deliver a gift in a meaningful way,” Kuzmeski says. “Don’t assume your child can wing it—create a script she can use to tell her teacher how much she appreciates her. She might even mention what she has enjoyed learning about the most. Also, tell your child to include her best wishes for a happy holiday season!”

Remind them to stay on their best behavior—especially in the presence of adults. As most parents are acutely aware, there are more than enough opportunities over the holidays for kids to be under the watchful eyes of adults who don’t normally see them. For better or for worse, it can feel like your success as a parent is up for debate. Yes, you’ll want your kids to behave for your own sake…but it’s also important to teach them that appropriate behavior, as well as right and wrong, don’t change from situation to situation.

“From parties to play dates to family gatherings, explain to your kids that even though they may not be directly interacting with an adult, that adult might still be observing and evaluating their behavior,” Kuzmeski says. “Tell tweens and teens especially that you never know which adult (whether it’s a friend’s parent, a coach, a teacher, etc.) might give you (or turn you down for) your first job or write a college recommendation for you. This concept will also hold true later in life—after all, an uncouth joke in the break room that’s overheard by your boss can have serious ramifications.”

“Ultimately, remember that there is no such thing as a perfectly behaved child,” concludes Kuzmeski. “You’ll probably hit some rough patches as you navigate the holiday season, but if you’re proactive about teaching your child to connect, they will be the exception rather than the rule. And remember, by helping them to grow into connectors, you’ll be giving them—and yourself—a truly invaluable gift this holiday season.”


About the Authors: Maribeth Kuzmeski, MBA, CSP, is the author of six books including …And the Clients Went Wild! and The Connectors (Wiley), and is a frequent national media contributor and international speaker. Maribeth and her firm, Red Zone Marketing, Inc., consult and train businesses from financial services firms to Fortune 500 corporations on strategic marketing planning and business growth. She has personally consulted with some of the world’s most successful CEOs, entrepreneurs, and professionals. Maribeth lives in the Chicago, IL, area with her husband and two teenagers.

Lizzie Kuzmeski is a teenager and a natural connector. She enjoys theatre, horseback riding, and, yes, Facebook. 🙂

About the Book:

The Engaging Child: Raising Children to Speak, Write, and Have Relationship Skills Beyond Technology is available at bookstores nationwide and from major online booksellers.

Read Part Two of this article: Small Talk made Simple