First Friendships

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Social interaction from a young age helps kids deal better with school and other life experiences. Encourage your pre-schooler to make friends, says Anjali Samanta

Encouraging interaction among preschoolers is not easy. There could be tears and tantrums, and every mother’s nightmare—incidents of hitting, biting and scratching. It may be equally disheartening to witness children in a group playing by themselves—also known as parallel play, a common phenomenon among toddlers and kids up to three years—instead of one another. This is why encouraging social interaction is so important. “Social development during preschool is about socialisation, a process whereby kids learn the values and behaviours accepted by society. This is crucial in order to help the child become a competent and confident person. As children interact with others, they develop references for what to expect from them as well as how to treat them,” says Lina Ashar, founder of Kangaroo Kids. So don’t give up if the first few interactions only result in your child clinging to you. Here’s what you can do to help your child develop those first crucial associations.

If you’re only starting out, it’s best to invite one or two children to your house and avoid assembling a crowd. You need to see how your child reacts with other kids in his space, playing with his toys. Plus, it is easier to manage fewer kids. You could set out some toys and organise a few activities. But if they are happy exploring toys, forget the planned activities. You could avoid snatching and crying incidents by keeping away toys that your child is possessive about. Also, keep the play dates short and when your child is at his active best. Avoid interrupting naptimes and mealtimes.

If you notice that your child is not confident about interacting with others or does not know how to react in a certain situation, you could try role play. “If your child was hit by another child but did not do anything to defend himself, you could enact the situation at home and help him understand that it’s okay to tell the other child that he is misbehaving or ask for help from an older person,” says Dr Poojashivam Jaitly, clinical psychologist, Child and Adolescent Health Centre, Moolchand Medcity.

Don’t discount the park near your house. It’s where your child will learn to share and play. It’s also where he will learn to wait his turn at the swing or empathise with a friend who’s hurt. Encourage interaction with statements such as “Arti is here today, do you want to say ‘hi’?” or “Rahul is climbing up the slide now; you can go next” or “Tara’s crying—let’s ask her if we can help.”

You could also look at structured programmes such as music classes, book reading groups or even institutes that offer mother-toddler programmes. Such programmes are mostly based on the role-model concept. “It doesn’t matter even if your son is just sitting while you are dancing around to the music—he’ll watch you and mime your actions,” says Sapna Khandelwal, a teacher at Julia Gabriel Centre, New Delhi. But Dr Jaitly cautions against blindly joining these programmes at an early age. “While these enhance social interaction, there’s a lot of learning that can happen at home too,” she says. “If the neighbourhood provides opportunities for your child to interact with peers and you are available to engage him in positive activities at home, it’s more than enough.”

Involve your child in daily activities. Simple things like grocery shopping or visiting a neighbour are arenas for social interaction. “I never felt the need for mother-toddler programmes because I took my child everywhere I went. She met a variety of people,” says Ambika Suri, a homemaker. Also, keep in mind that it is equally important that your child sees you interacting with your friends. Social behaviour is a learned behaviour, so give him plenty of chances to see you interacting with your friends.

Look for books with friendship as the theme, such as Up (also a film by Disney/Pixar) by Jamine Jones and Frog and Toad Are Friends by Arnold Lobel. They are great tools for introducing your child to the concept of friendship, sharing, empathising and relating to others. Encouraging children to borrow books from each other is also a great way to foster interaction. It will not only expose your child to a variety of books, but also teach your child to respect other people’s property.

Here are some activities you could organise:

WATER PLAY: Put out a water tub or use a tub or basin if you don’t have one. Add a variety of sponges, rubber ducks, plastic bottles and cups in it. Make it more interesting by adding some liquid soap or safe colouring. This will keep the kids engrossed and encourage sharing and interaction. Alternatively, you can use a sand box or create one by adding sand in a basin.
ART: Get them to make something—such as paper flowers from plastic cups. You may even leave them on a huge chart paper with colours, stickers and paints. The simple act of sharing the art supplies will encourage interaction.

YOUR CHILD HITS/BITES/SNATCHES: These are inappropriate and socially unacceptable behaviours. The minute your child displays any of these, intervene right there and explain why it is a bad thing. Enforce a timeout if necessary. If your child has a tendency to react in these ways, ensure their play time is always supervised.
YOUR CHILD IS THE VICTIM OF HITTING/BITING/SNATCHING: Teach your child that it’s okay to assert and defend himself without hurting others, or to approach an adult for help.
YOUR CHILD REFUSES TO SHARE: Make it a point to share things at home. Also, explain that if he shares his things, he will also get to play with his friends’ toys. Kids are fighting over the same toy: Try and get them to play with it together. If that’s not possible, keep the toy away and let them know you did it because they are unwilling to share.
YOUR CHILD IS THE SHY ONE: Acknowledge and understand your child’s anxiety without pushing him. Be around so that in case your child is uncomfortable, he can turn to you.