Dear Dr. Debbie,
Can you explain why our son is generally content to play alone? He likes to read, draw, tease the cat, build with Legos, watch TV or Youtube videos and talk with me or my husband. We have ruled out autism with the pediatrician and past teachers.
From preschool through first grade, he’s reluctantly gone to only three birthday parties of classmates. Our celebrations of his birthdays have been strictly family affairs which seem to suit him just fine. We have no expectation of him magically becoming an extrovert once school starts up again. But wouldn’t it be better for him if he had a playmate now and then?
Don’t miss last week’s column Negotiating with a 3-year-old — Good Parenting
There is much to be gained from interacting with others, so yes, it would be nice if he were supported to have some successful social interactions. There are many reasons for the social nature of humans — mostly, we help one another. We teach one another, protect one another, buy and sell goods and services from one another, entertain one another, and in short, take care of one another. While his needs seem to be adequately met currently, on his way to growing up, he should be learning to comfortably interact with others.
Variations in Temperament
The sociability of human beings can vary, and, according to temperament theory, stays about the same during one’s lifetime. A person could be categorized anywhere between “Hermit” and “Social Butterfly.” Your son would fall toward the “Hermit” end of the scale since he would rather read a book or build his Lego creations than play a game of catch with another child. In school, he likely interacts just enough not to cause attention to himself.
In his future, he might be most comfortable in a socially unstimulating environment, perhaps as a writer or an inventor. He may find a soulmate to share serene walks and silent sunsets in quiet mutual understanding.
Possibly there is something about him that makes him less likable than other children. A few years of being repeatedly left to himself may feel perfectly normal to him by now. Attractiveness as a friend could be jeopardized by “imperfections” that mark a child as different, confusing, or somehow threatening. This can depend on looks, behavior, smarts (in ways disapproved of by other children) and/or disposition.
There may be something fixable going on that is an obstacle to social acceptance. See if the school guidance counselor has any insights here. If his IQ is off the charts, he might find a welcome with older children in a special interest club. You might bring in the help of a speech therapist to improve his articulation. A nutritionist can help adjust his body size if he is underweight or overweight. An allergist can help get rid of constant sniffles.
A child behavior specialist could work with you or your child on strictly social obstacles. A bossy, whiney, loud or mumbling child could use some coaching to learn how to approach other children in a more appealing manner. A child who spends most of his time alone may not know how to interact, nor may he realize that his own behavior is the cause of continuing rejection. A behavior therapist could do some role playing, or instruct you how to do it, to help your son realize how his behaviors might be affecting his approachability.
In some cases, a child who does not interact much with others has not seen enough examples of how it’s done. There are no social models to learn from if his parents are reclusive, neighbor children are scarce, and the extended family rarely drops by. Unfortunately most teachers have too much on their plates to find and use opportunities during the school day for children to see and practice good social skills.
Find an activity the family can do with others at least once a week. Model how you introduce yourself to new friends, get to know one another through conversation, and participate jointly in the activity. Make conversation with an approachable child to see if that could jumpstart a friendship for your son. Then continue to show your son how friends look out for each other and genuinely care for one another, at least once a week if not in between.
Self-esteem theory holds that the way we relate to others is most affected by how we see ourselves. If I like myself, I am confident to present this self to others in friendship. On the other hand, the person who feels inadequate may try to avoid feelings of unworthiness by avoiding social contact.
What is unique and special about your son that would be admired by another child? Does he have a sense of identity from food preferences, a favorite Super Hero, a natural talent or honed skill? Does he have any strong opinions on the environment, social justice, particular books or movies? Does the family have a religious, ethnic or other social identity, such as a family hobby, that he can feel proud of?
There’s a Catch 22 here. If you like yourself, it’s easier for others to like you. If others like you, you can more easily like yourself. Self-esteem can be strengthened by parents and teachers via successful one-on-one activities with another child. Ask your child’s teacher to identify a good match for a friendship you both can support. Teacher and parent can work cooperatively to find a partner for a class assignment and nurture that friendship with repeated get togethers for the twosome both in school and out. Stick close as needed to keep the interactions running smoothly.
No, your son is not likely to transform into a social butterfly, but every child is worthy of friendship.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She has 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.
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