Dear Dr. Debbie,
Any advice on encouraging our almost 4-year-old to play by himself? He seems to do it easily at school but not at home. He shows no interest in playing with any of his toys unless my wife or I, or both, are playing with him. Could this be related to continued issues with school drop off?
When he first started as a 2 1/2-year-old we had a few weeks of tears whether it was Mom or Dad dropping off, then he was fine the rest of the year and had no difficulties at summer camp (held at his school). This school year his desperation at not wanting to separate comes and goes, but mostly comes each morning on the way into his classroom. He also frequently says to friends and family members, “I’m gonna miss you.”
The main difference in our family since last school year was the arrival of his baby sister at the end of the summer. He loves her dearly but always asks my wife and me which one of us is going to take care of her and which is going to stay and play with him. But playing on his own is never an option he’ll accept with any grace.
Dad of Two
Don’t miss last week’s column Poor behavior attributed to PANDAS – Good Parenting
My hunch is that this is all about the baby sister. Not her fault, of course, but nonetheless, her arrival has had more than a 25 percent impact on how your son experiences family life.
Prior to being a big brother, he had 100 percent of the available parental attention. At best, he now shares that attention 50 percent with a sibling, although she certainly warrants a greater proportion due to her tender age. If one parent is managing both children at the same time, it is likely that the infant takes priority over the preschooler; so for some of your son’s family time, his sister’s needs come first and he has to wait.
Probably the furthest from your intentions, adding a sibling to the mix has shaken his sense of security. Time and consist reassurances will ease his insecurity — at school drop off as well as home play time. Around the time my son was bestowed with a sister, I read somewhere that it takes about eight months for a household to adjust to adding a new member. Interestingly, a family of my acquaintance at that time was comprised of a new big brother and his recently adopted sister. Although she was a toddler when she joined the family, it seemed to be at precisely eight months that the family was, similar to ours, experiencing a more functional and harmonious household.
I suspect it has to do with how the brain relies on habits to relieve us of having to make constant decisions about our daily activities. We get used to things being a certain way and fall into routine behaviors accordingly. If you think of how different his day is now, as well as all the adjustments you and your wife have had to make to accommodate a second child, you can understand how your son’s routine expectations have been totally thrown off. Add this to the continuing adjustments he must make because of his expanding mental abilities and motor skills as a 3-year-old. And while he’s taking on new thoughts, feelings and behaviors as a big brother, he is also adjusting to changes in his parents — who in addition to coping with interrupted sleep and trying to do housework with one hand — aren’t taking every possible opportunity (from his perspective) to play with him.
Routines and reassurances will help your son develop new expectations that he will soon come to depend upon instead of getting upset or worried that nothing, including his parents’ devoted attention, is predictable in his world. As a former preschool teacher, I can vouch that drop off time goes most smoothly when the parent calmly and predictably carries out a ritual such as, “Give me a hug. Have a great day!” and turns and leaves without a scene. Even when the child is bawling. Trust that the teacher will call you if your son can’t get it together by the time you are a block or two away. Attending to a few tears, in demonstration of a child’s profound attachment to his beloved protectors and playmates, is all in a day’s work for a preschool teacher.
Use other one-on-one opportunities to reassure your son that indeed, things are different for everyone now that his sister is here, but that everyone has their jobs to do. Itemize the things you and Mom do to make sure there is food to eat and gas in the car, and there are clean clothes to wear and fun times with his friends. Specify, as accurately as you can, when you will be able to play with him next. This is indeed one of your jobs. His sister’s jobs include getting enough to eat so she can grow bigger and bigger, figuring out how to work her hands, how to make noises with her mouth that will one day sound like words, and soon how to work her arms and legs to crawl across the floor. He has jobs, too. Is he mastering a particular puzzle, a video game, making his own sandwich, getting ready for school in the morning?
The drive in to school can include conversation about what he can expect to do with his teacher and classmates today and how his mom, dad and sister will be spending their time. And remind him that you are always thinking about him, just as he thinks about you when you are not together. That’s love. And love is a rock.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com