At the beginning of every school year I encounter parents concerned about their three-year-olds’ social development. This apprehension can easily escalate to anxiety or even panic if their child does not readily adjust to the preschool setting. In spite of the reassurance I offer, parents still ask, “If my child doesn’t adjust to preschool, how will she ever learn to be social?” In past years, parents were primarily concerned that their child learned the alphabet, numbers, and even how to read, but newer parents tend to be more concerned about their child becoming “social.” Many intelligent parents seem to believe that social skills must be obtained by age three or they will be lost forever!
But what exactly do we mean when we say “social”? Educators describe social skills as the ability to get along with other children, solve problems, and get one’s needs met without being aggressive. However, our culture places a great deal of importance on children making a lot of friends and being popular with their peer group. The reality is that children usually take after their parents. If you or your spouse is shy and introverted, as are about 40 percent of all people, it is likely that your child will share similar traits.
Some parents even wish their children would make friends and be popular because of their own painful childhoods. They might see preschool as the place to transform their children into someone more social than they are. Yet the projection of one’s own desires on a child is a heavy and potentially damaging burden.
So how do children acquire social skills? We must always begin with the child himself. Every child is born with his own temperament; some children are born outgoing, friendly, trusting, and curious. If a child inherits these characteristics from one or both parents, chances are good that he is an extrovert. Extroverts are people who seem to say, “Here I am world, let me tell you about myself!” and proceed to do just that. The child who is a bit shy, introspective, hesitant, and suspicious might be one of those 40 percent who are introverts. Introverts are people who seem to say, “If you want to know me, you’ll have to take your time and prove that I can trust you.” They rarely reveal much of themselves voluntarily, even to their immediate family.
As children are exposed to a variety of social situations, they usually react according to their inborn temperament. It is important that you allow your child to react in the way that is natural for her. Introverts who are pushed too quickly into social situations will stubbornly withdraw further into themselves. On the other hand, extroverts crave the company of other children and become bored and restless on their own. There is nothing inherently good or bad in being either an extrovert or introvert. The key ingredient to becoming a social being is the unconditional acceptance shown by parents. When they feel accepted for who they are, both kinds of children learn to operate in the world and succeed in life.
Is there anything parents can do to facilitate the learning of social skills? First, take the lead from your child. Try to understand and accept your child’s temperament. If your child needs to stand back and watch other children for a long time before joining a group, let her know that this is O.K. Avoid hovering or trying to convince her to go play. If your child joins right in to play, she is already social and might only need to learn skills such as how to take turns and how to negotiate when two kids want the same toy. Be the best role model you can be, demonstrating to your child how to show kindness, generosity, and helpfulness. A shy child can often overcome feelings of shyness by focusing on the needs of other children. When your child is with a group, avoid intruding in their play; allow them to work out their own solutions to problems unless someone becomes aggressive or bullies other kids. Above all, keep your expectations realistic. Your child will certainly become a social being in her own time and in her own way.
Eleanor Reynolds is the editor of The Best of the Problem-Solver: Articles for Parents and Teachers and the author of Guiding Young Children: A Problem-Solving Approach. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.