These kids demonstrate that they have the success secret down pat. (Photo: Getty Images)
Want to steer your kids on a path toward becoming successful grownups? Skip the self-esteem building and afterschool tutors and instead encourage them to share, cooperate, and show kindness.
Related: Here’s How to Raise Kind Kids
A 20-year study found that kindergartners who displayed these social competence traits were more likely to have graduated college, stayed out of trouble with the law, found full-time jobs, and avoided drug and alcohol problems by the time they reached age 25.
“It was striking to see how sharing, cooperating, and being kind at such a young age served as predictors of adult success,” lead study author Damon Jones, senior research associate at Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center at Pennsylvania State University, tells Yahoo Parenting.
Interested in how social and emotional skills make a long-term impact on a child’s life, Damon and his study team tracked 753 male and female subjects. As kindergartners in the early 1990s, they were rated by teachers on a scale of one to five on skills such as sharing, being helpful, and listening to others.
The researchers followed the kindergartners for the next 20 years, noting their positive and negative milestones, such as whether they graduated from high school and college, had a police record, or dealt with substance abuse issues.
The main finding: The kindergartners who scored highest on the social and emotional skill scale were up to four times more likely to turn out to be employed college grads without drug or alcohol problems or a police record. “For every one-point change on the one-to-five scale, the kids doubled their chances of being successful,” says Jones.
The study, published in the July issue of the American Journal of Public Health, suggests that social skills are at least as important as cognitive ability when it comes to achievement. Jones hopes that educators begin to acknowledge the importance of cooperation and sharing, and that they develop classroom strategies that can help foster these in kids in all grades.
That’s an idea that resonates with child development experts as well. “We live in an interdependent, socialized society, so having the social skills to navigate this world is critical,” Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills-based child and family psychotherapist, tells Yahoo Parenting.
“Parents today are so focused on academic and athletic achievement, but equally important is the ability to get along with others and show empathy and compassion.”
It’s never too late for parents to encourage their kids to build these crucial skills, says Walfish. “The most important thing moms and dads can do is model this behavior themselves: Be kind, cooperate, show compassion. Kids learn by the experience of watching their parents,” she says.
And if you overhear your child demonstrating kindness to a friend or volunteering to share her toy, show her the right kind of praise. “Instead of saying, ‘Good job,’ tell her, ‘You must feel really good about yourself for sharing,’” suggests Walfish. “This sends the message that sharing is important not because it pleases you but because the behavior itself is so rewarding.”