From the moment we find out we are going to have a baby, we begin to imagine what our child will be like; we wonder about features and personality traits; we worry about potential challenges. Until we’re done counting fingers and toes, we may not even consider social development, but social development is something we should be focusing on with our children from early infancy.
Social development occurs most rapidly between the ages of three and six; the preschool years are a crucial time for acquiring much-needed social skills (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000). Children who do not achieve adequate social development can face many challenges as an adult, including poor mental health, lower achievement, academic difficulties, difficulty finding and keeping a job. They also face an increased risk of criminal behavior.
What can you do as a parent to improve your child’s social development?
As soon as you are done counting fingers and toes, the best thing you can do is bond with your child. Socialization begins at birth through parental bonding. As your infant grows into toddlerhood, it is critical to continue to bond with and nurture your child, even when you’d rather hide in a closet and ignore the terrible twos. As your child grows, the best thing you can do is provide ample social opportunities that allow your child to learn how to make friends, play with others, and eventually share.
You don’t have to force friendship; young toddlers will often play independently side by side. Don’t expect too much interaction or willingness to share, although you can begin encouraging the behavior. As your toddler reaches three or four, group interaction should be encouraged. It doesn’t matter whether it is weekly play dates at a public park or a couple of afternoons a week in preschool; group socialization is vital to your child’s overall social development.
When your child begins school, his or her teacher will continue to focus on social development. You can provide support to both your child and the teacher by reinforcing positive behavior at home and supporting the teacher’s rules at school. Social development continues throughout childhood.
Children who suffer from learning disabilities or hyperactive disorders like ADD and ADHD, as well as children who fall somewhere within the Autism spectrum, may find social development more difficult to achieve, but with clear expectations and guidelines from you combined with the strength of your emotional support and unconditional love, kids with special needs can learn to interact successfully with their peers.
The best thing you can do as a parent is to simply love your child, respect his or her individuality, and encourage tolerance, love, and empathy.