Development of Social Skills
Children aren't born with social skills. While your son is an infant, he is preoccupied with learning how to operate his body, building a connection with you, and finding ways to communicate. Babies are not able to recognize the pudgy figure in the mirror as “me” until they are about one year old; not surprisingly, their abilities to relate to others take a while to develop. At first, your son will simply play next to other children (and won't particularly care who they are). But as he becomes more aware (usually around the age of two or three), he will begin to experiment with relationships. Not all of these experiments turn out well.
The Laboratory of Play
Play is truly how a young child learns about his world. He explores, shakes, pokes, and pulls. He grabs and climbs. Unfortunately, when the object of all this activity is another child, scrapes, bumps, and hurt feelings can result. Young children have not yet learned how to share; the idea of playing cooperatively takes some getting used to. A preschooler sees himself as the central figure in his own world, and making room for others takes time and practice.
Imagine Noah, who is three years old when he goes to preschool for the first time. He is an only child, so the busy, noisy world of other children is overwhelming at first. Being a curious, sociable boy, though, Noah finds ways to fit into this new environment and seems to enjoy himself there.
One day, as his father, Keith, is making dinner, Noah begins talking about his day at preschool. “I play with A-Hat,” he says, proudly. Keith, not sure what he's heard, says, “Ahab? Who's that?”
Noah shakes his head impatiently. “Noooo, Dad, I said A-Hat. A-Hat is my friend.” While Keith continues to puzzle over this odd name, Noah chatters about life on the playground and how he and A-Hat climbed the highest on the jungle gym — so high that the teacher asked them to please come down.
By the age of two or three, gender differences appear in the ways children conduct their friendships. Girls often prefer one or two best friends and build intense relationships with them. Boys tend to gather groups of friends, playing less intensely with more people. Boys may express anger through physical aggression, while girls fight with snubs, rumors, and insults.
The next day, when Keith drops Noah off at preschool, the mystery is solved. “A-Hat” turns out to be a sturdy three-year-old wearing an Oakland Athletics baseball cap. His name, as it turns out, is James, and he lives just around the corner, but to Noah he remains A-Hat — even without his cap. Not until the boys begin kindergarten at the same school does Noah finally call him James.
Throughout the years of elementary school, James and Noah build a friendship out of baseball, skateboards, and hanging out together. They occasionally fight, usually over the rules of a game or a broken toy, and sometimes they yell at one another. By the next morning, however, they are friends again. Even when Noah's family moves across town and he goes to a different high school, the boys still enjoy hanging out together when the opportunity arises. Their circle of friends widens as the years pass, but they continue to share a special friendship.
“No One Will Play with Me!”
Some children seem to be born with the gift of charm. They make friends easily, are comfortable with new people and situations, and know just how to wriggle their way into a new group of children. Others, however, hang back, cling to parents, and struggle to gain admittance to games and conversations. It is heartbreaking to watch a child sit all alone or to hear him say sadly, “Nobody likes me.”
A child's success in the world of his peers depends in part on his ability to send and receive accurate nonverbal signals. For instance, a child who stands too close to others, talks too loudly, dresses strangely, or touches too often will find it difficult to fit in. Other children appear angry when they don't intend to or do not know how to join a game already in progress.
Researchers now believe that shyness may be genetically influenced; in other words, some people are shy for life. Rather than pushing your child to do something he finds difficult or discouraging, accept his temperament, focus on teaching him coping skills, and be patient as he learns.
The good news about social skills is that they can be taught — and learned. If you can, find an opportunity to observe your boy with other children and see what happens. Preschool staff and teachers may also be able to keep a kind eye on your son and let you know why he is struggling to make friends. Kind, gentle encouragement and opportunities to practice will often solve the problem.