When her daughter Aeryn was about 3, Jean Player noticed a subtle change. Aeryn arrived home from daycare telling her mom not about the songs or the games but rather about the children she had played with. "She would talk about the kids, about how she wanted to see them, to call them on the phone," Player, of Somerville, Massachusetts, says. "It seemed like things were starting to broaden in her world."
As with many other children her age, Aeryn's social web was broadening. When they're born, babies are primed for social interaction -- think of those big eyes that just draw you in -- but with none of the skills required to engage with other people. Over the next three years, children go from caring about no one else but Mom to boiling with excitement about a playdate.
Getting to Know Mom
When your baby first enters the world, all he wants is to be warm, dry, and well fed. The person who helps him meet these needs (most often Mom) quickly becomes the center of his world. What your baby learns from this first relationship is the beginning of his social understanding. "That initial interaction -- baby cries, parent responds -- builds trust," says Andrew Garner, MD, assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, in Cleveland. "And trust is the foundation on which the rest of all relationships begins." Your unwavering commitment has a payoff: that first real smile that can't be chalked up to drowsiness or gas. While it warms your heart and is the first hint at personality, it's an important milestone for another reason: your baby now knows that crying isn't the only way to capture your attention. He flashes a smile, which you find so irresistible that you immediately walk to his crib and answer his babbles and coos with your own. "It's the start of a conversation that becomes more and more extended," says Kathleen Kiely Gouley, PhD, a clinical child psychologist at the New York University Child Study Center. "That's the beginning of social exchange."
Mommy, Don't Go!
A newborn can be passed from one set of waiting arms to another with little protest. Your 8-month-old, however, will have a problem with that, for she's downright suspicious of all those other people she's suddenly become aware of. It may seem ironic, but this panic over grandparents, caregivers, and those women who coo at her in the grocery store is a crucial stage in social development. After all, in order to widen her social circle, she must first know that there are other people who could be included. The worst of this phase is usually over in a couple of months. With experience, your baby gradually learns that she can trust other people -- who will then be on the receiving end of those glorious smiles.
In the first year, your baby's social network is made up mainly of adults. Still, that's not to say babies aren't interested in other tiny people. If you put two 6-month-olds together, they're likely to be curious about each other, says Claire Lerner, child development specialist with Zero to Three, a child advocacy organization in Washington, D.C. "One baby may want to get closer to the other baby and feel his face, in an attempt to figure out 'Who is this other person?'"
As your baby can do more things, he shows his interest in other kids by mimicking what they're doing. For instance, your 1-year-old will start banging on a drum, and his playmate will do the same. The kids are not interacting, and it may not look like much is going on, but watching and imitating is a primitive way of saying, "I like you."
As kids get close to age 2, there may be more interaction, but, unfortunately, not always the kind you want. One 2-year-old may grab another's toy, not possessing the language skills to say, "Can I play with that?" Whereas before you might have been able to resolve a toy dispute by dangling another plaything in front of one of them, now distraction is not an option.
By age 2, a child learns that items and ownership are important. He might be very possessive of his things, not wanting other children to touch them. But he's not only territorial about his own toy box. In his egocentric mind, he believes that anything that looks good is his for the taking. "So when you tell a child this age, 'You need to share,' you might as well be speaking gibberish," Gouley says. Parents may wonder if playgroups or playdates are even worth the trouble -- but it's through experience that kids eventually learn the give-and-take of friendship. "You need to teach sharing, and they learn to share through practice," Gouley adds.
So when can you expect your child to understand the concept? The skill can be worked on between ages 2 and 3, but Gouley believes that many parents expect too much too soon. "It's a long process," she says. "These children are just starting to gain some ability to control their behavior and impulses."
When language explodes, around 2 1/2 to 3, friendships often take off as well, because now kids have the vocabulary to negotiate who is going to do what. "That's when they can say, 'Okay, who wants to be the princess? Who is going to use the sword?'" Lerner says. When negotiations break down -- both kids covet the role of princess, or both want to use the (plastic) sword -- you'll still need to play referee and help guide them to a compromise. Ideally, you'll be able to engage both children in finding a solution because their involvement will make it more likely that they'll follow through.
Don't worry if your child doesn't yet possess the skills to initiate a game. Many kids still need parents to start an activity: "Do you guys want to play T-ball? Why don't you each have three turns at bat, then you can try to catch the ball."
The beginning of preschool often heralds another new development -- your child may single out specific kids she wants to play with. At this age, a friendship is often based on a shared love of Play-Doh or a passion for the dress-up corner. Navigating friendships can have its share of insecurities, missteps, and possible rejection. A 3-year-old might see a group of kids on the playground but have no idea how to join in. Her inborn egocentrism may make it hard for her to understand why everyone doesn't just turn around and accept her from the get-go. With practice, she'll learn how to break into a group and master the social niceties, helping her create the relationships that turn into true friendships.
By age 5, most children will spend more than half their playtime with their peers, says Joanne Hendrick, PhD, coauthor of The Whole Child: Developmental Education for the Early Years (Prentice Hall), and by age 7, Gouley says, "it's almost intolerable to be without a friend. It's a short amount of time where the parent is the center."
So enjoy these toddler years during which you're still the center of your child's universe and the person whose opinion matters most.
Before his first birthday, your baby might not even react if another child picks up one of his toys. Fast-forward a year, and that same child might rudely snatch the toy back, leaving the other child in tears. How do you prevent playdate meltdowns?
- Set a timer. The guest gets the toy for two minutes. When the bell rings, it's your child's turn.
- Have duplicates of popular toys. Put favorite, hard-to-share items away.
- Let your child see you share. Tell your child, "Daddy gets the remote for half an hour. Then it's my turn."
- Send the kids outside. Fresh air and a chance to burn off steam may turn things around.
- Give them a healthy snack. It's hard to cooperate when you're hungry. Just don't load them up on sugar!
Kids Who Hang Back
Would your toddler rather wrap her arms around your leg than join the other children at the playground? Shyness makes it difficult for children to initiate play, which makes it hard for them to make friends, says Hendrick. "The way to get around that is to try to get people to understand that she needs more time to feel comfortable," Hendrick adds.
To help your child deal with his shyness, let him warm up at his own pace and allow him to watch from the sidelines for a bit. But also help him understand how others may interpret his behavior. For example, if your child is standoffish but then complains, "The kids don't want to play with me," explain that others see his being alone and not saying hello as his way of saying he doesn't want to play. Then each time he does interact, praise him for it, suggests Hendrick. This way, your child receives attention as a reward for initiating social interaction.
Social Development Milestones
1 to 3 Months
- Develops a social smile.
- Enjoys playing with others, and may cry when play stops.
- Imitates some movements and facial expressions.
4 to 7 Months
- Enjoys social play.
- Is interested in mirror images and studies faces.
- Smiles more at an actual face than an image of one.
8 to 12 Months
Shows preference for certain people and toys.
Is shy or anxious with strangers.
Tests parental responses to actions.
1 to 3 Years
- Imitates the behavior of others, especially adults.
- Begins to take turns during play.
- Spontaneously shows affection for familiar playmates.
- Understands concept of "mine."
Originally published in the December 2007 issue of American Baby magazine.
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