Why is it so Important to Teach Social Skills?

As educators—and most of us parents, as well—the monumental task of guiding young minds to make sense of the world around them can feel overwhelming at times. I’ve commented on multiple occasions that it seems like it was much simpler to be a teenager when I was one (let’s not talk about how long ago that was!); there were far less influences competing for my attention, more opportunity to be connected with positive adult mentorship, and expectations for my interactions with the community and greater society around me seemed fairly clear—and if I didn’t understand them, I knew that the expectation was to ask a trusted adult. I didn’t always seek to meet those expectations, because—well, because I was a teenager! But the point was that I knew what those expectations were.

Fast-forwarding a bit—as a young adult brand new to my Naval career, I distinctly remember hours-long training sessions in “Service Etiquette” at Officer Candidate School, where Ms. Catherine Yonke (whom we came to understand was the definitive authority on teaching young officers the “gentleman” part of military leadership) would lead us through scenarios, mock conversations, and performance assessments on everything from telephone etiquette, differences in protocol for addressing a superior or subordinate, table manners, ceremonies, professional attire…you name it, we learned it! Jokingly, we called her sessions “knife and fork” school–but I never forgot it, even though it took me awhile to master it. Even now, you may notice that my emails are always signed with a “VR,” which is a holdover habit from my Navy years—it stands for “Very Respectfully,” the proper traditional service etiquette for addressing communication to a superior. As I sit here nostalgically leafing through my well-worn copies of Service Etiquette (Yonke, 1999), the Social Usage and Protocol Handbook (Chief of Naval Operations, 1970), and–one of my personal treasures–a first edition Naval Officer’s Guide (Ageton, 1943), I notice that the majority of the principles of social behavior in which we used to train have as their foundations the importance of ego-restraining humility, unconditional respect for others, and kindness as a rule.

One of my favorite educational psychologists, John Dewey, explained in Human Nature and Conduct (1922) the importance of social education as part of the pursuit of academic achievement: “Lack of understanding of human nature is the primary cause of disregard for it” (p. 3)…”Conduct is always shared; this is the difference between it and a physiological process. It is not an ethical ‘ought’ that conduct should be social. It is social, whether bad or good” (p. 17).

In our current society, parents are competing for the minds of their children against a discordant chorus of self-centered voices in media, entertainment, social media (which is neither truly “social,” nor “media,” but that is a topic for another time!), the endless (and too often misleading) resources of the internet, and a deficit of non-parental adult role models who understand the importance of mentoring young minds and teaching them the importance of kindness and mutual respect. It’s difficult—and often impossible, as a parent—to be the loudest and most persistent voice influencing that valuable young mind. We are extremely privileged here at Greenwood to have a faculty and staff who do take that responsibility seriously and will always do our best to partner with families to maintain that consistent foundation of kindness and mutual respect. I am consistently proud of our students—in a society that is often sharply divided and contentious, our students’ unity and ability to listen to and fairly evaluate opposing opinions sets them above their peers and provides hope that they will continue to contribute positive change in their communities long after their departure from Greenwood. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” — Margaret Mead