Many of you have asked about how cultural differences affect the types of social capability discussed in Boys of Few Words.
These questions have come from concerned parents and teachers from across the globe, but almost always are about a particular child or teen showing signs of delayed social integration.
Perhaps the child has recently relocated to a new school, state, or country. Although we might be anxious to reach out and help someone with social challenges, the first step is accurately assessing the problem to be helped. What criteria should we follow in determining whether limited social involvement reflects feelings of cultural displacement, or individual cognitive challenges with social perception and communication?
The Critical Difference Between Differences
Unfortunately, much of what is written and taught about cultural differences yields little practical benefit. In my view, too many of these books descend into simplistic formulations of cultural traits – a kind of “one size fits all” for specific groups. (However, if you would like to consult a book, I recommend Communication Across Cultures as a thorough introduction to critical concerns.)
Despite someone’s membership in a particular racial or ethnic group, we need to understand his or her individual nature. Would you want someone to assume that your ethnicity predicts your political beliefs, or that your gender predicts your recreational interests? I believe most of us want to be seen as we are – complex, unique individuals. Our cultural identity is certainly an important component of that uniqueness, but may not be the dominant factor in how we identify ourselves or relate to others.
The key is not to over-emphasize between group differences, or under-emphasize within group differences. The latter is almost always larger (statistically) than the former. For example, in my work on the social development of boys, I often discuss gender differences. However, the differences between males and females – let’s say the average score of those two groups on some type of social skills test – would certainly be less than the range of scores we would discover among the individuals of either gender.
In essence, there is more variability within a single group than there is between two different groups. Why? Because when we consider the differences between groups (i.e., interpersonal communication skills of males and females), we are focusing on averaged differences between those groups. In contrast, a within group focus (i.e., social communication skills of high school boys) involves looking at the difference between the highest and lowest performing member of that particular group.
(If you would like to know more about how statistics can inadvertently oversimplify a person’s unique characteristics, I highly recommend Stephen Jay Gould’s classic – The Mismeasure of Man.)
Several years ago I was working with a college student whose Filipino boyfriend was exceptionally quiet. She said, “I just want to know if I’m dealing with cultural stuff, or if there’s something wrong.” I didn’t feel confident addressing that question until I had consulted with a colleague.
Bottom line: if we want to assess the relative strengths or challenges of an individual, our best comparisons will be those of the same gender, ethnic background, and of similar age. Wouldn’t it be nice if such a comparison group were always readily available!
Did You Say What I Think You Said?
Communication is the plasma of social connection, and it’s filled with subtlety and nuance. Think about how even minor idiosyncrasies in a person’s communication affect how he or she is perceived by others. As the context of communication changes – so does its meaning.
Early in my career I was working in a mental health clinic that often treated people who had been evaluated at a nearby state hospital. As I read the evaluations of the hospital’s doctors, and contrasted those observations with my own perception of the same patients, it occurred to me that some doctors (who were themselves in the midst of acculturating to life in the United States) had a hard time discerning colloquialisms from incoherent language. For example, in response to the question “Do you have any contact with family?” a patient might have responded, ” Which family? I have lots of families, and they contact me all the time.”
A doctor who doesn’t understand that the concept of “family” is malleable for some groups may be inclined to interpret this response as incoherent, even delusional. Once, a patient in the clinic referred to kinks in his hair as “tornados.” Could this patient’s expressive strengths be misconstrued as a delusion in the wrong circumstances? To be sure, context always play a role in how we construe the idiosyncratic, creative use of language.
Fortunately, most of the kids who concern us are not affected by mental illness. Still, assessing the difference between a personality trait like shyness and a cultural preference for being quiet in some situations benefits from an experienced ear. When assessing the social adjustment of a child from a group with whom you are less familiar, one approach is to amp up the interaction. (Toss a ball, play some music, take a walk, etc. You might also try talking in an animated manner, cracking a few jokes, being self- deprecating, or cajoling the child about something he said. Why? It’s easier to assess social skills once the child has loosened up.)
(By the way, I employ a similar communication strategy when administering IQ tests! Years ago, my clinic found that positively energizing our interaction with students almost always produces higher scores; this shouldn’t surprise us – the flow of adrenaline certainly affects cognitive performance.)
If we notice that the social awareness and communication of a child changes when she or he relaxes, we have gained a valuable piece of information about where to focus our help. He may need help joining with groups in which he feels a greater sense of confidence or belonging. Making a positive social connection with one or two peers is typically more valuable than having a large circle of acquaintances.
Finding a common interest can go a long way in relieving social awkwardness. Although academic performance might be a social bridge in school, most of the parents I hear from worry about their children’s lives outside of school. “Is he avoiding others on purpose?” “Isn’t she lonely spending so much time at home?” “Would he know how to join in if he wanted to?”
Is This Really Scientific?
A primary objective of my presentations is to discuss the science of social development in practical terms – especially nonverbal perception and communication. Those of you who have attended Helping Boys to Communicate and Connect will recall seeing the empathy test developed by Simon Baron-Cohen, a scientist whose provocative research has helped shaped the dialogue on gender differences in reading facial expressions.
During the past few years, it seems like almost every week neuroscientists contribute a further clarification of how the brain processes social cues, helping a person to be socially skilled. Many of those contributions have been discussed in earlier newsletters. With this research in hand, we might reasonably feel confident in declaring an equation for social success, including acculturation.
Not so fast!
If we look closely at the science of social skills, we quickly see that it is built upon many layers of comprehension and personal experience. In other words, we might be expert at reading the facial expressions of people in the community where we grew up, but it is quite possible that those same expressions take on new meanings in different contexts. So until we have had enough experience with the “code” of social conduct in a particular place, we will likely have some degree of difficulty accurately perceiving others – even if we had excellent perceptual skills in our culture of origin.
Think of how this affects a child who moves to a new neighborhood, or even a new country. Each school has its own subcultures. What about first generation immigrants whose parents can’t teach them the “code?” Or children who change social or economic classes? Obviously, some kids are dealing with many of these factors all at the same time. A child trying to navigate a strange culture may not understand humor, insults, rejection, or acceptance if she or he cannot read nonverbal cues, or follow slang.
Fortunately, most kids learn these signals faster than adults. We can help by being aware that they are “translating” as they go.
Socially Awkward Kids Minimize Emotional Risk
Let’s think for a moment about why we might be concerned for a child who appears socially stalled. It goes way beyond concern about a limited scope of friends, or missing out on peer activities. Our biggest concern should be that social awkwardness leads to emotional withdrawal – what is commonly called “shutdown.”
We certainly don’t want to see kids retreat into social isolation because they fear embarrassment or because they are chronically frustrated in their ability to express themselves. When we begin working with a new group of kids, we should think to ourselves that every one of these individuals is pure potential. How can we access that potential? What “language” can we use to connect with their motivation? With tweens and teens, we can ask these questions out loud, letting them know in our very first meeting what the stakes are – what we’ll be trying to achieve. That’s the best way I know to show respect and positive regard. And we shouldn’t shut up until we see some type of sign that the message is getting through.
Four Basic Ways to Help
At a minimum, we should provide four forms of intervention to young people in the midst of social integration:
1. Direct, supportive communication about the challenges of living and going to school in a culture different from one’s own. (This may be provided by a school counselor, teacher, mentor, or community professional. Ideally, the adult should have knowledge of the child’s culture, family circumstances, and educational background – these are the building blocks of a thoughtful assessment.)
2. A structured opportunity for sharing personal experiences with peers.Peer support groups are an excellent way to meet this need. (Please note that such a group does not have to be called a peer support group – it only has to function as one.) Boys, particularly, benefit from activity-based groups to get social interaction rolling. A teacher can also facilitate this type of interaction and, when possible, make the interaction part of a class project.
Click Here to read about a group for boys with communication disabilities in England.
3. Assistance in joining peer activities. (For many kids, asking to be included is much harder than participation itself. We may need to accompany a child as she or he asks to be included, help them rehearse it, or even pre-plan with someone who will be supervising/coaching/teaching during the interaction.)
4. Professional Assessment – when indicated. If a child’s social skills lag despite our best efforts, or if the exact nature of a problem remains elusive, it’s time to seek professional guidance. This might come from a psychologist, speech-language pathologist, or learning specialist. I wish I could tell you that there are great tests which assess social/communication skills independent of cultural factors. There are very few tests with cross-cultural validity. The most useful assessment is likely to come from someone able to build rapport with the child in question, who is insightful enough to tell the difference between a cultural disconnect and a social cognitive deficit unique to the child.
These interventions work for several reasons. First, they “uncover” the stress that could be holding a child back. Anyone who joins a new group (such as a classroom or school) is likely to be apprehensive about speaking up and joining in. When we reduce this anxiety by working at the process in a matter-of- fact, step-by-step manner, stress will be relieved.
We certainly don’t want to convey the need to be more “intuitive”. Who among us can learn to be more intuitive? Waiting for kids to “get it” is just plain inhumane. Instead, most kids will respond positively to a plan. The trick, particularly for boys, is to manage two conflicting needs: the first is the strong desire to reduce vulnerability by minimizing social risks; the second is to have as much fun as possible! So many kids are “frozen” by this situation. They don’t know what to do, so they may do nothing. Thawing them out is a gradual process of encouraging measured risk (“Don’t worry about making friends, your only job today is to say hello.” “Why don’t we try inviting him over for a movie. If it works out we’ll do something more interactive next time.” “You’re probably better off volunteering answers you do know than waiting to be called on.”)
As the seas that separate continents become smaller, and as business and economics increasingly direct where families settle, the challenges of being understood across cultures will continue. In some ways, we are in a better position to manage those challenges because we see and talk about them. And whatever strategy and resources we might have to offer, we will always need the tools that speak across all cultures: patience, respect, compassion, and curiosity.
When most of us hear the word “hyperactivity,” my guess is that we picture a boy between the ages of five and ten, in constant motion. Fine. But what about the long-term implications of hyperactivity? What happens to all that hyperactive energy as a person matures, particularly if it involves poor conduct?
A recent study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (May, 2007) takes a hard look at that question – and provides an answer that should give us pause. A team of doctors led by James Satterfield, MD, completed a 30- year follow-up study of hyperactive boys with conduct problems. The researchers compared this group (ADHD) with another group of boys absent these problems (Control) with respect to criminal behavior as adults.
These are the key results:
37% of the ADHD group had a felony arrest in adulthood, compared with only 9.4% of the Control group; 25% of the ADHD group had multiple felony arrests compared with 6.3% in the Control group; 28% of the ADHD group had a conviction, compared with 6.3% in the Control group; 25% of the ADHD group had been incarcerated compared with only 6.3% of the Control group.
In case you are wondering, the scientists who conducted this comparison controlled for IQ and socioeconomic status. That means that the differences noted above were not caused by limited intelligence, economics, or social background.
Clearly, this study highlights the need to identify hyperactivity and its behavioral consequences early in a child’s life. The study’s authors suggest that by age 3, high activity levels are predictive of criminal convictions in adulthood! I have written before about the high incidence of preschool expulsions. Maybe it’s time to take a closer, more strategic look at how to help young children manage the transition to school, and how kids conceptualize themselves as learners and community members.
Helping children to gain the self-control skills needed to manage impulsivity is an important objective of No Mind Left Behind. Stay tuned for more guidance on this important topic in future issues of Family Matters.
Ask Dr. Cox
Q. My 14 year old son (who has ADD) has recently taken to physically injuring his 10 year old brother. I am at a loss as to what to do and say anymore. I have taken away privileges and used physical work (raking leaves, moving soil via a wheelbarrow, etc.) but he still continues to hurt his brother. I have suggested that when LB is getting on his nerves to walk away and find an adult. No words are needed, but this way we (parents) know that he is frustrated. Nothing I suggest is working. Please help me figure out a plan of action for my son.
Lori C., Greenville, PA
I can appreciate your frustration. Parents love ALL their children, but when one child is being hurt, it can be hard to feel empathy for another that’s doing the hurting! You don’t mention how serious the injuries are, but any “injury” is serious enough to go into protective action. I would ask the younger brother to let you know immediately when the older brother becomes aggressive. Give him a pager if necessary. This will telegraph your concern to the older boy. As a prelude to this course of action, I would recommend sitting everybody down in front of a therapist to discuss the situation. Even a single meeting will have a powerful effect because now the behavior is known to a neutral third party. Following up with a therapist could provide needed accountability down the line. You may be surprised how the formality of a family therapy meeting can jumpstart positive change.
Speaking of changes: After nearly thirteen years of living and working in Pennsylvania, my family and I will be relocating to Rhode Island – my roots – this summer. The website, newsletter, and programs will remain the same. It has been very hard to say good bye to our friends and colleagues here. We’ve been fortunate to have a close working relationship with many families throughout Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley. Saying goodbye to the many kids I have worked with has just about broken me in two! I plan to start a new practice in Rhode Island, yet devote more time to writing books, and speaking to various groups. Please let us know if you would like to schedule a program for your school or community group for the 2007-08 academic year.
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