Once a baby gains some mobility they start interacting with people – and therefore they need social skills. They need to learn how to be with other people and be respectful. They need to learn manners: say hello, to say please and thankyou, to say sorry, take turns and so forth. I believe these skills can be learnt at home, within the family’s social life, I don’t believe a toddler needs to be always with other toddlers to learn these things.
When we interact with our toddler day in and day out, doing things like reading a book, playing with playdough and building blocks, or dancing to music we have the opportunity to teach our toddler how to respond to people by how they respond to us. They may be excited but still they can’t hit and they need to learn there is an inside voice (I’m not doing too well with this one at the moment!!) As they play with us we can set up taking turns, or encouraging each other, or by modelling saying sorry after they have hit. Social skills are for interacting with all age groups so we teach and practice with all age groups.
When my kids were little we had two different types of play dates – one was their playdate, one type was mine.
I remember how this came into being. My friend had come to visit and my kids loved her so much, and she loved them, that most of the visit was child-centered. I felt ignored. Not from my friend, but from my little children. They didn’t recognise that mummy needed time with her friend as much as they liked time with theirs. Of course they were too young to recognise this but that is how I felt so I started changing that. I started making it clear that this was mummy’s playdate. They were expected to say hello, have a quick conversation and then go and play. Though this happened at pre-schooler age, we kept that mindset for the following toddlers. At toddler stage, most of my playdates, happened in my home so they could comfortably go and play away from me (or have cot time).
At toddler stage, most of their playdates, happened because I visited with my friends – our family friends. On this type of playdate, my hope was to catch up with my friend, but I also knew it was about training my child in social skills. It meant that I kept them close by. If they were playing indoors, it was in a room where I could see them, if they were playing outdoors, my friend and I would be sitting out on the veranda so we could see the kids. This is because I know my toddler isn’t able to play with another child and always do the right thing. They still need my help to be patient, kind, and giving. They still need my help in order to respect other people’s property.
We have a mantra in our house ‘never leave home without a book’ and this started from the toddler years – though we often had more than a book. When you leave the house make sure you have what you need to keep your toddler occupied, not just the standard nappy change and waterbottle. When you go to a café, doctors appointment or a friends, take with you a small box of toys for your toddler. It may look cumbersome as you walk in and yet your toddler will be able to sit and play (especially if you have practice blanket time) giving you 15-30minutes of basically uninterrupted time.
A toddler can quickly become overwhelmed in a social situation and we need to be aware of their limits and not push them beyond. I always think it is sad when you see a toddler loosing the plot and you know it is screaming “take me home” and mum is there squeezing the last little bit out of their social situation. I know I have been that mum and yet I often wonder if it was really worth it. And in my heart of hearts I know it isn’t worth it – I need to get the little one home, usually for a sleep!
Not all social situations our little ones go into are positive – sometimes our kids come home bouncing off the walls, using language that they would have never heard in our home, or mimicking attitudes that we hadn’t previously seen. Such social situations aren’t always avoidable. I always factor in a debriefing time after such a social time. Being at home, having our regular activities in a calm way is paramount, along with extra cuddles. We cannot expect our toddlers to cope going from one busy activity to another – living on adrenaline is exhausting! Our toddlers are learning so much, they are receptive to so much new information and new experiences, we need to give them time to process it and use it – they need the calm of home to counteract the busyness of being out and about.
Society seems to push the idea that kids need lots of social interaction with their peers, and it starts at the toddler years. When kids are with kids their own age they quickly begin to think life is about them, they become selfish and demanding. When their social life is a part of the family’s social life they see that they fit into the bigger picture, that they are a part of something bigger than themselves. This is a healthy foundation for healthy social skills.
You can see the rest of my Living with a Toddler for 31 days series here.
Or find more 31 day series here.