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Home Family Parenting Advice Filling in for Missing Playmates—Good Parenting

Filling in for Missing Playmates—Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,
Family life is so bizarre. While my husband and I take turns running the essential errands, with masks, of course, and try to allow for quiet time for each of us to work from home, it is starting to feel normal for our almost four-year-old to hang around the house all day.

We can take walks in the woods nearby, but if we see any of the neighbor children, the routine is to give a polite wave and keep going.

His teachers have been great about hosting virtual hangouts for a class of 12 – most of whom don’t stay too long in front of the screen. Our son pays attention to the story, might sing parts of the song, then fiddles around with the craft of the day – usually something related to letters and shapes. When “school” is over for the morning, he runs off to play.

We appreciate the school’s efforts to do the best they can while the building is closed, but wonder what our son, and other children his age, are missing after two months of staying at home, and who knows how many more months to go.

New Normal?

Dear N.N.,

Fortunately, time to play at home and walks in the woods with his parents can be very fulfilling for an almost four-year-old. He’s probably enjoying family meals three times a day and an unrushed bedtime routine, too. Living the life.

Learning about shapes and numbers is great, also. And a screenful of familiar faces makes these “lessons” even better.

The main losses for children during the important strategy of staying home to slow the spread of COVID-19 are daily routines and social interaction with their peers. Sounds like the routine part is working, including a new way of having school. If mom and dad are keeping things at home on an even keel, balancing work obligations with family time, your son has it made.

The loss of playtime with his classmates and neighborhood friends may have some short-term effects. But they’re not irreversible. I expect that when preschoolers once again find themselves able to interact freely with each other they will be both overjoyed and possibly a bit awkward at first as they try to remember where they left off.

In the meantime, spend some of your son’s playtime as his playmate. Yes, you’re the grown-up, but give him opportunities to practice the skills that are learned best with a playmate or two.

A playmate is someone who can help make your ideas come to life, and add spark to the play with ideas of their own. Take turns calling the shots as the two of you decide what to build, choose where the blocks go as you work on the structure, and maybe change direction and build something else. When the building is complete there may be characters to add (toy people and animals if you have them, or imaginary characters) to carry out adventures with unexpected plot twists that both playmates have to agree on before they can happen. As you play with the same playmate over and over, you learn what each other’s preferences are and you learn what you always agree on. The goal of course, is to have a long and enjoyable playtime together, with both of you feeling that your ideas are valued.

Conflict Negotiation
Inevitably, there will be a conflict to negotiate. Preschool teachers call this a Teachable Moment. An adult playmate could easily just give in: What does it matter whether the hospital gets a heliport above the main entrance or above the emergency entrance? Or the adult could revert to being the authority figure who puts an end to a conflict by declaring that it’s now time to clean up for lunch. But if you were another almost four-year-old, a conflict of ideas could escalate into name-calling, crying, or throwing the toys around.

Children can learn conflict resolution strategies when they understand how the strategies can work for them. Remember the goal of playtime is to keep on playing! Teach your son to represent turn taking with some nearby dominoes. Let him decide on the location of the heliport because it’s his turn. Put a pile of 10 dominoes beside him. Put one back in the domino box saying, “That’s right, it’s your turn. You get to decide where the heliport goes. One domino from you.” At the next disagreement, point out that it’s your turn to decide and put one of your dominoes back in the box. Pretty soon he’ll get the hang of this new routine and will come to expect it. When it proves to be effective at keeping the play humming along – you actually do have some pretty good ideas to add – he’ll realize he doesn’t need the dominoes anymore. In a seasoned relationship, actual score keeping isn’t necessary. There’s an automatic “knowing” of whose turn it is because the relationship is more satisfying when turns are taken.

Emotional Intelligence
Good playmates are usually on the same page emotionally. They get excited with each other, they get silly with each other, and they especially enjoy a good scary moment with each other. Do your part to pick up on your son’s emotions and ride them with him. If he’s proud of putting a puzzle piece in place give him a high five. Bring him into your emotions as well—“I’m worried the ambulance won’t fit in this driveway! Oh, no, we have to move these blocks fast because I hear the siren! Here take this one away and find a smaller block while I push these blocks over here a little.” Enjoy the moment of relief together when the crisis is averted and the ambulance successfully arrives with the injured patient.

Does your son play family? Besides the two of you, there could be additional family members in the form of stuffed animals, hand puppets, and baby dolls. Emotions from real life experience are often examined through pretend play between friends. Your son might want to play the parent. Follow his lead with the feelings he wants to explore. Maybe the parent is too busy with work to play with the child (which will be you, speaking for the teddy bear). Or maybe the parent is worried that his child (again, you) isn’t eating enough vegetables. Just as with decision making with a playmate, working through “pretend” emotions works best with a goal of helping each other. Preschool playmates generally fall easily into roles and emotional responses that help to carry pretend play to a happy conclusion. Playing a parent, a child may exaggerate nurturing responses, or exasperation. Playing a child, or a pet (dogs are popular in pretend family scenes), he may exaggerate being helpless or being angry. Be a good playmate as the supporting character most of the time, but lead in the direction of a happy ending when needed.

Emotional intelligence is defined as recognizing one’s emotions and what is causing them, and making the best choice with your actions. In family matters, the best choice is the one that returns parents to the role of reliable nurturer, with children’s well-being assured by having had their needs appropriately met.

Role Models
Some social watching goes on in a classroom of preschoolers, as well as when there are plenty of children around the neighborhood. Children learn social skills through observation.

Social distancing prevents your son and his friends from being able to do this now. As a substitute, use storybooks and good children’s programming (PBS for example) to “eavesdrop” together on interactions and relationships between characters. Name the emotions as they are expressed. Guess what has caused the feelings. Predict the best course of action, then commend or criticize what happens in the story. Good writing for children will include important messages about fairness, selfishness, kindness, meanness, making amends for one’s mistakes, or empathy. Take a minute at the end of the story to summarize the lesson, or wait for a better time to have a conversation to see if your son saw things the same way you did. Just like the predictable outcomes that can be observed in real-life social situations, for better or for worse, a well-told children’s story gives examples that are consistent with the truths of human behavior.

Needless to say, your son will also pick up on Mommy and Daddy’s patterns of social interaction – particularly while you are his most available subjects for observation! Evaluate the messages you are giving him, and fill in with any that have been lacking.

Make up for the losses inherent in Social Distancing with some essential lessons in social skills.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist with degrees in Early Childhood Education, Counseling, and Human Development. Workshops for parents, teachers, and childcare professionals can be found at: www.drdebbiewood.com.

Click here for more parenting advice by Debbie Wood.

What do you think? Email your comments or questions to Dr. Debbie at editor[at]chesapeakefamily.com


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