One morning while making coffee I noticed a photograph we have of granddaughter Zoe sitting on the table while we unloaded groceries. This is when she learned the word for cold by touching the ice cream. For a while we played the game of cold and not cold.

You’ve probably done the same when your kids were learning comparative words like open and closed, soft and hard.

It’s a bit like getting balance on a bicycle. You place your child in a position where she can experience it, and then she just needs enough practice until she “gets it.”

Social skills are learned in a similar fashion: That was gracious; that was not. That was kind; that was not. That was generous; that was not. With enough examples, eventually your kids learn social skills that many do not have. 

At the same time, you are sharing your set of values with your children. While hot and cold describe objects, words like gracious, caring, kind, generous, and polite are contextual words that frame behavior. So when you see behavior you like, associate that behavior with the value it represents. Frame it for your child as being gracious or respectful or courageous or hardworking or tolerant—whatever values matter most to you.

Years later, someone else will notice your child and appreciate how well he or she deals with the world. 

“Conversation is how values get ordered, how passion is made contagious. If a parent talks about it, it’s important. If a child is allowed to join the conversation, then that child becomes more than a table decoration: he has a part to play in the drama that is growing up. If his ideas count, then he counts.”  — Robin R. Meyers, American author


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Paul Axtell is author of Ten Powerful Things to Say to Your Kids: Creating the relationship you want with the most important people in your life. He and his wife, Cindy, live in Minneapolis and love sharing time and conversations with their 13 grandchildren.