A desperate father called me the other day saying that he fears his child will never develop social skills. “He only wants to be with us, his parents. Even when we go places, he stays with us. He rarely plays with friends and if he does, it is only with one friend.” Many parents try to socialise their toddlers and children, believing that social skill develops with peers. This cannot be further from the truth. I recall watching my then six-year-old son siting in a restaurant and engaging three elderly ladies in a conversation. I stayed quiet and even went for a walk with his younger brother for a little while.
When I returned one of the ladies said to me, “I appreciate what he says about growing up without going to school. But, what about socialising?” “What about it?” I asked, circling my arm at the four of them. We are taught that a child is social when she mingles with other children her age and we often dismiss social interaction with her parents, sibling or adult relatives. When a child prefers familiar one on one contact, parents are likely to encounter criticism and lose sight of the unique way he relates to others, as the woman in the restaurant missed on her own social interaction with my son.
Compounding the difficulty is the fact that we live in a culture in which being a social child has taken it’s image from the concept of peer groups who do things together. The thought that every child has to be mingling with peers gets in the way of individual possibilities. To free yourself from these and other limiting concepts, you must start from ground zero and relinquish common convictions. Beethoven is an example of one who, as an adult, did not mingle nor socialised in the ordinary sense. He desperately needed his privacy so that he could connect with humanity in a deep and meaningful way through the vulnerable and emotional medium of music. This is one of limitless numbers of ways to connect socially. If we are willing to expand our concept of being social to include whatever way one connects to her fellow humans, then every child/person is social and all human connection is equally valuable.
As adults we value tolerance to diverse social preferences, yet we expect children to give up their unique path and mold themselves into limiting social expectations. In turn, they will have to relearn to cherish differences, which are so essential for a healthy society. It is amazing how the negative view of the eccentric child transforms into admiration in the biographical notes of revered innovators, thinkers and artists: We say in admiration things like, “He was a man to himself,” “she was never part of the crowd,” or, “he would spend hours each day in solitude,” and so forth. Indeed, people of great passion, leadership and creativity are rarely those who fit the social mold. A child who chooses to be mostly with his parents is a wise social being. She is a healthy social being whose preference is to socialise with those who have close relationship with her and who are socially competent.
What a wonderful way to develop a capacity for deep human connection. After all, most of our days we spend relating one on one and we often wish we had more skill doing so. In addition to the unique quality of the individual, keep in mind that each child develops a variety of social skills at different times and settings of their lives. A mother shared her concerns with me about her ten year old daughter who could act and dance well but fears the stage. I told her of a young man who was on stage with full confidence between the ages of nine and thirteen and then turned into a private, off stage, teenager.
On the other hand I worked with a girl who was extremely inhibited at eleven and is now the singing and acting teen star of her community. So it is with other qualities, some introvert children become leaders and some minglers eventually choose a more private path. If a child does not yearn to play with children then you know that he does not need it at this time (and maybe never will.) What you can do to enhance a child’s social development is to cherish his ways and make it easy for him to feel that his preferences are right. Show confidence in him by providing what he is asking for, your companionship, one on one connection and, yes, the security of you, and other loving adults being with him. In doing so he will keep trusting himself and will learn to respond to others in connecting and compassionate ways. Keep in mind that any attempt to direct a child misses on honoring his autonomous right to be himself.
When, in our anxiety, we offer “Why don’t you just try once to join the play group,” we are expressing doubt in the child’s choice which is really a doubt in who he is. Not only do you need to avoid any advice and seduction to pull your son into a certain social context, you must also protect him from such disrespect when it comes from others. When an adult came to my, then very shy, middle child, and tried repeatedly to invite him to join the play, I put my arm around him in supportive gesture as he nodded his head for “no.” If someone was not respectful I would even say, “He does not want to participate, do respect his choice.”
One mother protested that her two-year-old loves being with other children, but he doesn’t know how. He bites, pushes and grabs things. We get so anxious about an imaginary future. We think the child will never become social if he doesn’t master the skill at two or three. A child who bites and pushes is frustrated by the situation and is better off away from the situation that brings up these behaviours in him. Children’s best social training is their relationships with mum and dad. This is where they learn to connect deeply, to care, to be considerate and respectful and to love. There is no better way.
For the young ones, peer groups are unnatural and rarely bring joy to the children or parents. They are artificially created by adults and not the natural inclination of young ones. As children grow older they tend to want to play with children closer to their age, but this can only be a healthy experience when the child wants it, enjoys it, andexperiences herself as competent. More often than not it means one-on-one friendship rather than a group. However, even children who enjoy group activities still learn most of their social skill from you and do not have to be with other children in any specific way.
Cherish your child’s unique social path and enjoy. If your own concern wells up in you, listen to it inside yourself, share with a friend or a counsellor, but, at this time, keep it away from your child so she can stay free to be herself. Develop a curious outlook toward your child’s social ways. You can never know what he is preparing for; a life as an expert on intimacy, an innovator, a loving stay at home father, a leader or whatever else which is yet unknown about his developing self and for which he needs to follow his own inner guide. Your child is social. Cherish his ways and watch him unfold.