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Child Development & Parenting: Early (3-7)
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Child Development & Parenting: Infants (0-2)

Social Nurturing in Early Childhood

Angela Oswalt, MSW, Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Many types of nurturing can be encouraged through one-on-one parent-child activities, such as riding bicycles, doing crafts, reading, playing games or puzzles, or playing instruments. However, activities designed to foster children's social development requires their involvement with other people, both children and adults. Parents can help encourage socialization by planning opportunities for children to interact with their peers. Socialization activities need not be complex in nature. A simple trip to the park or playground at a time when these locations are likely to be busy creates an opportunity for children to interact spontaneously with peers. Alternatively, parents can organize formal play-dates that allow specific children to play together at specific places (e.g., at a neighbor's home, at a children's museum, etc).

kids playing in sandboxTypically, the less parents try to direct children's socialization, the better that socialization goes. When parents remove themselves from dictating these social interactions, it forces children to learn how to communicate, to share, to negotiate, and to solve their own disagreements. Such an open approach does not work well for all children, however. Some children are very shy and need a fair amount of encouragement before they will engage with peers. For these children, parents should arrange play-dates where fewer children are present (one or two maximum). Parents who have shy children may also need to assume an active initiatory role to help get the play started, so as to allow time for everyone to feel safe and comfortable. As children begin to have fun on their own, parents can gradually fade into the background.

Beyond helping kids develop strong social bonds with peers, parents should also encourage family and sibling bonding. Siblings may be spaced far apart in age, or have very different interests and abilities; therefore, parents may need to be extra creative in order to come up with activities that everyone will enjoy. Siblings should be encouraged to resolve their own conflicts whenever possible, as this will tend to reduce sibling rivalry over time and build stronger sibling bonds. However, parents should not become so "hands-off" that they ignore sibling interactions that are violent, intimidating, or cruel. In these cases, adults should intervene as soon as possible.

Families can also build traditions by establishing regular activities (e.g., nightly family meals, Friday night movie nights, Tuesday night game nights, or family bike rides on the weekends) that the entire family does together. Creating activities in which children can interact with extended family (e.g., cousins, grandparents, aunts, and uncles) allows them to build close relationships with these extended family members, and helps them to establish a sense of history and identity. It is much easier to foster a sense of extended family closeness when family members live near to one another. However, even when extended family members are spread across states or the entire country, regular telephone calls or web video sessions over the Internet can be coordinated to keep the family spirit alive.

Young children need to be reminded, encouraged, and rewarded for practicing proper social manners. How far to take this social learning is up to individual parents. Different families put different values on how formally their members should conduct themselves with regard to manners. However, common courtesies (including phrases like "Thank you" and "Excuse me", and practices like sending a thank you card after receiving a gift) are universal and should be taught to all children.

One area of manners that can be especially difficult for toddlers (and even older children) to appreciate is sharing. Young pre-operational children are not yet socially mature enough to appreciate that each other person is an individual with unique needs and feelings. Instead, young children tend to view others as either there to satisfy their own needs, or in their way. Sharing has to be taught and enforced until children are mature enough to understand why this behavior is important.

Parents can encourage sharing and the related concept of turn-taking in a variety of different ways. One of the best ways to encourage this behavior is for parents to model sharing and turn-taking behaviors in front of children. Young children will tend to model what they see their parents doing. Parents should make it a point to share things with their children and concretely point out that they are sharing as they do this. Moreover, parents can further encourage sharing behavior by introducing activities or games in which sharing is the goal. Activities like a backyard relay race in which each child has to hand off a stuffed rabbit to a peer to continue the race or a puzzle that children can put together jointly can provide sharing practice. Parents may need to discipline children who don't easily learn to share. Information on providing discipline in positive, non-punitive ways can be found in this article.

Beyond learning how to socialize and get along with peers, young children need to learn how to interact with adults who are not their parents or part of their extended family. Parents can encourage this sort of adult socialization by involving young children in the process of purchasing items at the store or ordering food at a restaurant. Younger preschoolers can say "thank-you" and "please" to store clerks or servers. Older preschoolers and young school-aged children can order their own food or pay for items at the check-out counter. These interactions help children feel confident and competent in social situations as well as encouraging the development of other important skills used in social interaction such as reading, decision making (e.g., deciding what to eat or what to buy with their saved birthday money, and math (e.g., determining what something costs, making change).

Some children will struggle with the task of interacting with strange adults, particularly if they are shy. Parents can help make these socialization opportunities less stressful by engaging children in practice role-play and pretend play while at home. Children who have practiced the typical sequence of phrases and actions necessary to complete a purchase or order a meal will know what is expected of them the next time they are faced with such an interaction at a store or restaurant and this may make them feel less anxious.