Kids Need “People Smarts” Now More Than Ever

By Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D., author of Smarts! Everybody’s Got Them

Kids Need “People Smarts” Now More Than EverThe COVID-19 pandemic currently ravaging the country and the world has made the issue of community and social responsibility a focal point of concern. Health experts strongly recommend wearing masks and practicing social distancing not just to protect ourselves, but more importantly to protect others from the virus we may be carrying. While the emphasis has been placed on changing behaviors, what is also crucial is a fundamental change in the way we think—a change from thinking primarily about ourselves to thinking about others.

Howard Gardner, a professor of education at Harvard University, has suggested that an important function of the human mind is the ability to deploy what he calls “interpersonal intelligence” (which I call for simplicity’s sake “People Smarts”). This is the skill to empathize, organize, and socialize. It focuses on the ability of a person to understand the intentions, moods, and aims of other people. It is one of eight distinct intelligences Gardner has proposed in his theory of multiple intelligences. The others include (my terms are used here): Word Smarts, Number/Logic Smarts, Picture Smarts, Music Smarts, Body Smarts, Self Smarts, and Nature Smarts.

Thankfully, after years of focus on academics and standardized testing, our schools seem to be doing a better job of developing social and emotional skills. Universities and foundations have created kindness programs for early childhood development. Kids in elementary and secondary school are engaging in activities around compassion and mindfulness that can help them become aware of their role as part of a greater whole. While these schools aren’t necessarily using the terminology of Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, they have increasingly woken up to the shortcomings of focusing purely on academic achievement. It is of crucial importance to the survival of our society that we continue these efforts to help our kids develop their People Smarts (along with the other seven intelligences), so that the needs of others will be honored and attended to as future generations of Americans mature into adulthood.

As parents, you are your child’s first teacher, so you have the opportunity to help your child develop People Smarts in the course of your daily activities. Simple actions such as sharing a toy, giving words of encouragement to a sad friend, or engaging in volunteer efforts that benefit the community are all ways in which kids can turn their focus from their own needs to the needs of others.

The pandemic has placed limitations on your child’s access to interaction with other kids, but here are some pandemic-proof ways in which you can help strengthen your child’s People Smarts:

  • Play board games with your child that promote cooperation, such as those available through the Peaceable Kingdom brand of
  • Encourage your child to stay in contact with friends during the pandemic using child-friendly social networks such as GoBubble or ChatFOSS.
  • Suggest that your child teach a younger sibling a skill they know (for example, riding bicycle, learning to read, the rules to a game).
  • Practice role-playing different social situations that your child might otherwise have difficulty with (for example, asking someone to be friends, resolving a conflict with a peer, responding to a bully).

Finally, make sure to let your child know that the pandemic we’re going through is an opportunity for all of us to come together, and that we can help accomplish this by wearing masks in public and maintaining social distance to protect others as well as ourselves. Following these guidelines will help to instill a feeling of “we-ness” in your child. With parental support, and with schools focusing more attention on developing social and emotional skills, we can usher in a new generation of compassionate individuals who will help our society deal with whatever adversities might come in the future.

Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D., is an award-winning author and speaker with 47 years of teaching experience and over one million copies of his books in print. He has authored 15 books, including Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom; written numerous articles for Parenting, Ladies’ Home Journal, Family Circle, and other periodicals; and appeared on several national and international television and radio programs, from NBC’s Today show to the BBC.

Free Spirit books by Thomas Armstrong:

Smarts Everybodys Got ThemYoure Smarter Than You Think

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