It’s interesting to look at what is the typical schedule of a young child now, and what it was twenty years ago. Now, it’s very, very common for even 2 – 4 year olds to have structured activities outside of the home, such as ballet, soccer, gymnastics, music. Many parents feel they are giving their kids a head start on their future, helping them to be competitive when they are older by starting younger. Others feel that the social aspect is what they are most interested in.
For now, I’m just going to address the social aspect. How much do children need outside activities, or even play dates, to develop social skills? My position has shifted over time on this question. When my kids were very young, I didn’t even question the necessity of young kids spending lots of time in the company of their peers. That’s what everyone did, and I never thought to ask myself what kind of interactions young children were having, or what they were learning from one another.
When I started homeschooling, I started thinking a lot more about what the benefit to kids is from their playmates, since my kids weren’t having the typical school experience. I didn’t want to deprive them – so would it be necessary for me to duplicate the social group opportunities found in school for my kids so that they would develop appropriately? Where do good social skills come from? Once I started thinking about that question, I realized how ridiculous it was to assume it came from being around lots of kids – obviously if that was the answer, every child in school would have fantastic social skills and loads of friends (which clearly isn’t the case).
Generally group dynamics tend to be based on the pecking order, with kids competing to be the most popular, cool, etc, and minimizing others to raise their own standing. Parents and educators know that it’s what kids learn as part of a group that end up being the things you have to deal with and correct at home! If good social skills aren’t being learned from the group, how are they developed?
Well, how do we learn anything? We need to know the basic principles involved in being successful and have lots of opportunities to watch someone successful use those skills. The ideal is to do something on our own, while having someone who is skilled in that area close by to guide us, and show us the tips along the way. Think of the apprentice/mentor model, which is amazingly effective.
Now think about how a child can use the apprentice/mentor model to learn social skills. He needs to learn what good behavior/good social skills are, and see healthy social skills being practiced in a wide range of settings, while simultaneously being able to practice his fledgling skills with someone experienced close by to guide him. This means that the ideal place for a child to learn to interact with others is at home, not with a bunch of equally unskilled children.
A child spending lots of time with his parents gets to see them model getting along with others in wide variety of situations. He gets to see mom on the phone, in the store, chatting with the supermarket checker and other customers, handling a difficult situation with a plumber, responding to telemarketers, relaxing with her friends, and of course, interacting with other family members. She shows him by her example what healthy social skills look like. Throughout the time a child is growing up, he is absorbing all of this, and trying it out for himself. The mom who is close by can immediately correct a child who isn’t acting in the right way, or positively reinforce the actions that she wants to see more of.
A child in a group is getting feedback about how to act from others his age. Yes, there are some kids who are amazingly well balanced, but I wouldn’t put odds on those kids being the ones who are going to guide your child to becoming a healthy adult. And the social messages they are getting from the rest of them? No, thanks. I would much rather be the one guiding my child, wouldn’t you?
I don’t believe a young child (6 and under) needs any outside social activities or even playdates, if his mother is home with him and interacts with him during the day, and especially if he has another sibling. We have been fed the idea that kids need to be around other very young children from the time they are babies. It’s become the norm since so many moms are at work and need daycare, and the philosophy to support it came along afterwards – ie, “Don’t worry about being away from your kids all day, because they are better off in their playgroup/nursery instead of being with mom.” Very simply, it eased parental guilt. The first problem is, studies don’t support this contention, and the second problem is that lots of moms who are at home have bought the myth.
What kids do need (and this has been repeatedly established) is to be with their families; it is the custom made environment to help your child grow in every way. It doesn’t matter if the sibling is two years younger – he is learning important social skills by interacting with him. One young mother told me recently that she feels bad for her 3 year old son, having to play with his 2 year old brother, because they are such different personalities. She was wondering if she should move to a different neighborhood where there were more young children close by so that her oldest child would have his emotional needs met. I told her, his emotional needs are being met! He is better off in every way by being in a healthy home environment than by spending his days in nursery or preschool. It’s true, siblings many times wouldn’t choose each other as friends. But they are going to spend many years of their lives together, and all of those years will be so much better if they are taught how to be friends. That begins by giving them lots of opportunities to interact with each other, staying close by to moderate their behavior. (It isn’t fair for an older child to repeatedly have his tower torn down, his picture ripped up, or his hair be pulled – that’s why you need to be there, to stop behavior like that from the younger or older child, and keep their time together on an even keel.)
The statistical likelihood of their nursery school playmate becoming a major part of his future is very, very tiny. The skills he learns even in guided play with a friend (which is a rare situation, unless you set it up yourself) are those even more effectively taught at home. I don’t know about you, but I feel that my time and energies are limited, and I want to invest my time as effectively as I can. That means using it in a way that brings me the highest returns – and teaching siblings to be kind to one another, interact respectfully, and get along in spite of their differences definitely brings high returns.
I strongly suggest that if you do want to have play dates, a) you limit their frequency, b) have your kids’ friends over to your home, and c) keep them in your eyesight or earshot at all times. I don’t allow my young children to have friends over and to play in a different room with a door closed, or on a different floor of the house. It’s not a lack of trust; it’s simply the understanding that it puts them in a situation that they don’t yet have the inner reserves to handle well. And I’m not referring to more extreme examples, like kids acting out sexual behavior (which is becoming very, very common, even among young kids). I’m talking about a child impatiently raising her voice to her friend, threatening not to be her friend if she doesn’t do what she wants, or even taking every toy off the shelf and leaving the room they are playing in a disaster zone.
When a child gets away with this kind of behavior at select times, like when she has a playdate, goes to a group activity, or goes to someone else’s home, it will influence them at other times, even when you are supervising closely. Be careful about providing lots of social opportunities that will undermine your goals as a parent. Most parents do it because they really believe it’s in the child’s best interest. I couldn’t disagree more.