Consult virtually any parenting book or Website on how 1-year-olds socialize and you'll run across the term "parallel play." The concept goes something like this: When children under 2 are placed on the floor side by side, they'll play separately with toys but they won't actually interact. Babies this age are far more interested in their environment than in each other. Sound familiar?
Perhaps to a casual observer. But according to leading researchers, the theory just doesn't hold up. "Parallel play is really a misnomer," says Victoria Youcha, Ed.D., a child-development specialist at Zero To Three, a Washington, D.C.-based national nonprofit organization focused on the importance of the first three years of life. "We know now that babies do more than just play separately side by side."
According to Lorraine McCune, Ed.D., an expert on infancy and early childhood at the Graduate School of Education of Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, "These children do interact, but adults often don't recognize the connection because 1-year-olds aren't engaging in the play that we usually think of as interactive, such as racing toy cars or playing house."
In fact, toddlers monitor each other very closely and copy each other's movements -- their version of social connection. Unfortunately, these interactions sometimes take the form of behavior we perceive as antisocial, namely, grabbing and snatching each other's toys. But this tendency should not be mistaken for inherent selfishness. "It's a toddler's way of playing," says McCune. "The toy is interesting because the playmate is touching it, and the grabber wants to get involved."
And according to experts, most toddlers do show signs of willingness to socialize; parents just need to be tuned in to the cues. "Some kids squeal or point when they see other babies, or they put food in another child's mouth," says McCune. "To a limited degree, they can also recognize their playmates, provided they see them often enough."
Burgeoning social skills aside, though, they're still toddlers; they need to improve these newfound skills, and this requires active input from their parents. "You can't simply plop two toddlers on the floor while you and your friend sip coffee," says McCune. "You need to get down on the floor and initiate play."
Before you invite a little guest over to play or accept an invitation for your child, there are a few things to keep in mind. Remember that toddlers are too self-oriented to actually share and that they don't have any impulse control. So don't be horrified if your perfect little girl or boy pushes or swipes at another child.
"I remember coming home from one playdate and telling my husband that I had aged ten years," says Deborah Kelm, of Shaker Heights, Ohio, recalling her son Zachary's first social forays. "Playdates didn't seem to work -- each child wanted what the other one was playing with, resulting in endless squabbles." All of which is perfectly normal, according to Youcha. "A young toddler has yet to figure out that other people have feelings, so her misdeeds are neither calculated nor malicious." When antisocial behavior kicks in, suggests Youcha, try to reframe events in a positive light. "If Beth grabs Annie's toy bear, it's much better to say, 'Annie, Beth wants to play with you' than 'Don't grab. Be nice.' "
If Annie doesn't object to Beth's playing with her bear, let them be. But if both children become hysterical, "you may want to change the subject by introducing some new toys," says Youcha.
In situations like this, urge experts, seize the opportunity to sow the seeds of empathy. "You might say something like 'Beth, doesn't Annie look sad? Maybe she'd like to play with the bear too.' The goal is to help toddlers identify and label emotions, which will lay a strong foundation for compassion later on," says Youcha.
To set the stage for a successful playdate, make sure the kids are fed and well rested, as comfortable babies are less likely to have meltdowns. Place them on the floor and lead them through simple games that require taking turns, such as refilling a bucket with small balls or blocks. Make sure that you have extras of similar toys in case grabbing starts. "Research shows that when there are enough versions of a toy for everyone, children tend not to snatch from each other but instead simply pick up a matching toy and copy what the other child is doing," says McCune.
Another way to facilitate toddler play is by using exchange games. Give your toddler two similar toys, then ask her to give one to another child. "She'll have one and the other child will have one, too, so your child will have the experience of relinquishing something when it isn't painful," says McCune. These games are also a wonderful way to teach a barely talking grabber how to use words to ask for what he wants. Even before he can say, "Can I play with that?" he can put his hand out. "Help him learn that the gesture is a signal," advises McCune. "If the other child doesn't give the toy to him, it's because she doesn't want to. It will take a while, but these are all concepts that babies eventually learn through practice."
Soon enough, your little social butterfly will be able to play with her friends on her own -- and you can finally relax with that cup of coffee.