The best place for your child to get started on soft skills is at home. Remember, a child typically learns by emulating those around him, so the family has a critical role in moulding him. He will learn what the expected behaviours are and you can take it a step further, by teaching him about the implicit and often unspoken rules that adults abide by.

By extension, this knowledge will serve your adolescent well during his college years and subsequently, when he becomes a working adult. Having the necessary soft skills will certainly make it easier for him to integrate with not only his peers, but also the various other age groups and personalities that he will encounter.

Pre-adolescents

If it is not too late, get started with younger children. Here are some useful methods you can practise at home:

  • Play games as a family: this can be anything from board/card games (e.g. congkak, Uno, Old Maid, Monopoly) or even sports (e.g. badminton, basketball, table tennis). It may not be readily apparent, but board/card games help teach him about cooperation, taking turns, following rules, controlling emotions, and learning new knowledge and skills.
  • Encourage him to express himself clearly: use your smartphone to record him explaining something (e.g. something he loves doing such as reading or playing a computer game). Watch the recording together with him and give him feedback on what he did well or what he can improve on.
  • Talk about movies: after watching a TV show or movie, take some time to talk about it. You can look at events leading up to the movie characters actions, how they handled their emotions (e.g. anger, sadness, etc.), whether it was appropriate (or not), and share strategies for how he should deal with his emotions in relation to the movie, e.g. staying calm by breathing deeply for a ten-count.
  • Hello, this is me: Teach him appropriate telephone etiquette (e.g. identifying himself when placing a call, how to take messages, and even how to make calls). Some of the things which you need to get across are emergency numbers, when to call them, when NOT to call them, and what to say when calling.
  • The ins and outs of privacy: Teach him about boundaries, personal space, and privacy. What they all encapsulate is the concept of respect. This will apply not only to himself but to others as well. In the real world, this can translate into simple things such as knocking and asking for permission to enter someone else’s room. Here, the door represents a ‘boundary’ that separates shared space (the room/corridor outside) from personal space (e.g. another person’s room or office). Knocking and getting permission also implies respect for that person’s privacy. As long as your child understands them, he will have an easier time getting along with others.

Tips to parents with younger children

  • Read to them: the best are stories that involve emotions/feelings. Be sure to discuss the story with them to ensure that they understand the concepts involved.
  • Take them out for play dates: This helps introduce the concept of teamwork/collaboration to them.
  • Give them chores: this will help to promote a sense of responsibility and allows him to feel like a contributing member of the family.
  • Teach them empathy: Teach him about the importance of empathising with others and being sympathetic.
  • Get creative: Encourage him to draw, sing, dance or be involved with any creative activity.
  • Give ‘n take: Life is all about balance, so teaching him about give and take is an essential lesson. Even a simple game of checkers or congkak can teach children about elements such as give and take, taking turns, and interacting with others.
  • Encourage curiosity: all children are naturally inquisitive, so you should encourage and guide this trait in a positive manner. Try to answer all his questions, and if the timing is not right, let him know that you will get back to him. This will indirectly teach him to apply his curiosity at the right time and place, e.g. answering his questions in the middle of a movie at the cinema will disrupt the other movie-goers enjoyment of the show.

What soft skills should you focus on at home?

As parents, you should be aware of your child’s strengths and weaknesses. By building upon his strengths, you will greatly aid him in developing it further. His weaknesses should not be neglected either. The key here in dealing with him is love and acceptance. Reassure him that you love him, regardless of his strengths and flaws. By accepting him as he is, it will be easier to reach out to him and to guide him to enhance his soft skills.

Some of the soft skills that you can work with your child/adolescent include:

  • Communication skills: here is one great way to put your smartphone to good use! Making videos of him talking or interacting with others is a great way for you to show him what he is doing right or wrong. Be sure to give him constructive criticism or it may backfire. This method is also a great way for him to prepare for making speeches at school events/ functions, getting ready for an interview (either for entry to university/college or for a job), or just doing it for fun (tell him he just won an Oscar and needs to give a thank you speech)! You can review it with him later to see how he did; was his speech/articulation succinct? Was he able to put his points across clearly? What about his body language; was it relaxed and confident? There are many other factors such as facial expression, posture, the usage of gestures to emphasise his points, etc.

  • Language proficiency matters: Reading is not a favourite Malaysian pastime, yet it is certainly the most efficient way to build up your child/adolescent’s vocabulary. If reading is not his forte, it is still possible to improve his vocabulary. Try injecting an element of fun into it by using online resources such as Word of the Day – just do a quick online search and you can find online dictionaries which offer this feature. Make it more of a challenge by asking him to use the word in his conversation with you; this can quickly turn a boring word lesson into some wacky fun with words as you try to outdo each other!

  • Hitting the right notes and volume: Encourage your child/adolescent develop his voice by varying and controlling his pitch, rhythm, tempo, timbre, and volume. Many people tend to neglect this simple yet vital aspect of communication. Having a great vocabulary is good, but unless he can deliver his message effectively, it is of little use. This is a powerful communication tool which will serve him well in his adult life. Just imagine if your adolescent goes for a job interview and finishes it off by saying “This opportunity to work with you is truly very exciting!” – but delivers it with little inflection and in a monotonous voice!

    You may need to start younger children on volume control first, e.g. when to use loud voices, when to speak softly, or self-control (when not to speak). Encourage older children to read you their favourite stories. You can pitch in by supplying the ‘voice’ of some of the characters. Adolescents may find all this boring, so it’s time to up the ante – make him give you oral reports of his day/week or make a ‘sales pitch’ for why he needs to use the car for the weekend. Think of different ways to not only make him express himself, but to do so effectively.

  • Work on non-verbal communication: A lot of our day-to-day communication involves non-verbal cues. Most kids have learnt to interpret their parent’s non-verbal cues (e.g. the ‘look’ that says “Finish your homework before you even think about asking to watch your show!” or the ‘stare’ that says “Don’t you dare ask me for ice cream when you haven’t even finished your dinner!”

    However, are they able to convey as much non-verbally? One of the most important aspects of non-verbal communication starts with making eye contact. Remember, encouraging your child/adolescent to look you in the eye does not mean you are encouraging him to challenge your authority; rather, you are encouraging him to be more self-confident.

    Be sure to encourage lots of eye contact in your communication with your child/adolescent and also proper posture while standing or sitting at home. Taking videos with a smartphone is also a great way to show him any bad non-verbal cues he may exhibit, such as poor posture or if he has any particular fidgeting habits that are unsightly. Remind him that a proper posture conveys self-confidence to anyone who sees him, and first impressions to count, especially in interviews.

An educational contribution by Malaysian Paediatric Association.