How’s Your Child’s ‘Relationship’ Brain?

We have all heard about street smarts versus book smarts, but how about a person’s ability to maintain, navigate and read relationships and people? I call this our social smarts, relationship brain, or people intelligence. I think it is incredibly important to teach our children all of the three ‘smarts:’ book, street and social. As we use technology more, our interactions with people decrease and we spend more time alone.

We have also learned that if we don’t activate our relationship skills, we will lose them. Scientists David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel earned the 1981 Nobel Prize for their experiments on the “use it or lose it” principle. They shut the eyelids of baby kittens when they were born and then raised them in a completely normal environment. A few months later they opened the cats eyelids and found that the cats were blind even though their eyes were open. Presumably those brain cells had died or vanished.

We have to make sure that we are working with our kids on their relationship skills so even as they spend more time on devices, they do not lose their ability to interact in healthy ways.

What makes up a strong relationship brain or what makes someone people smart? I believe there are three tenants to social intelligence:

1) Response Flexibility

How we respond to other’s both internally and with our external words and behavior is one indication of our social smarts. People who can gauge and moderate their own emotional response to people or activities have high levels of social intelligence. We can encourage our teens and children to have good response flexibility by teaching them the ‘name and tame’ principle. Helping them identify feelings to situations and then process them to make an informed response is key to helping kids navigate social waters.

2) Reflective Conversations


I have often written about how parents and kids often fall into the trap of only talking about logistics. Especially when families get busy, car and dinner conversations get bogged down with weekend plans, family updates and gossip, not feelings, sensations, perceptions, intentions or beliefs. We want our kids to be able to access deeper feelings and emotions, this helps them have meaningful connections with the people around them.


3) Perceptive Perception

Can your children read the emotions, facial expressions, body language of others around them? A huge part of people and relationships intelligence is being able to tune into others. We have to teach social literacy—their ability to read people.

How can we encourage relationship smarts or help children tap into their relationship brain?

-Ask questions that tap into people smarts like:

What is empathy?

What is the difference between thinking and feeling?

Why do humans feel and animals don’t?

Do you think in words, pictures, memories or feelings?

-Ask them to recall times and think about times where they felt they were able to ‘read’ someone’s emotions from their non-verbal behavior. Try to gauge non-verbal behavior together.

-Talk about a shared experience and how you both perceived it differently.

I think as adults we also have to work on our relationship brain, feelings and perceptiveness of people. We forget that relationships are key to our happiness and ease of life.


David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel. Journal of Physiology 160 (1962): 106-54

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