I have a 5.5-year-old only son. He is in kindergarten. I spend a lot of time on his wants and needs (as well as my own and my family). He is bright and nice, etc, etc. There is an area in which I am not sure how to proceed. He seems to be more needy of approval and inclusion than his classmates - or maybe I just notice it in him more. I've noticed other children ask for approval in their work, "Is mine great too?" or "See how far I am?", which seems ok to me. What concerns me more is overhearing my child ask other children, "are you my friend?" with earnest concern. Sometimes the answer is affirmative, and he moves on to other thoughts; sometimes it is negative, and after a little pouting or whining or simple sadness, he seems to move on as well. But it concerns me that he does this.
Can you tell me what he is needing and how I can teach him that he can get it from within?
Hi - my name is Mary Hughes - I've been an early childhood (child development) teacher for over 30 years, and also a Certified Positive Discipline Associate for some time, and I am assisting Jane by answering your question.
I want first to reassure you that your son's desire for friends is very normal - and a desired stage of development. Even his asking someone he likes "Are you my friend?" is such a common sentence out of young children, that I doubt you have cause for worry - yet being a caring Mom, you do worry, and that is so very normal as well! - You worry, as I did when I heard those kinds of questions out of my own children!
There is a wonderful book that Jane Nelsen and others have written called Positive Discipline for Preschoolers where you will find chapter 8 titled, "You Can't Come to My Birthday Party!" Social Skills for Preschoolers. This is the answer most children give when someone they care about says "No, you're not my friend!" Within 5 minutes (and assuredly by overnight!), of course, the tables have turned, and everyone is friendly again! This book is a MUST READ for parents of children 3-6 yrs. of age, I think, because it makes so MUCH sense! What we, as parents must do, is to see the world through THEIR eyes if we are to understand their behavior.
What young children do, in learning social skills, is practice, practice, practice - they 'rehearse' lines and actions, trying to see what will 'make friends and influence others!' At 5, children are still very 'egocentric' - or stuck on themselves, so to speak - the world and the sun revolves around "ME" and the world from my own perspective is most important - they are only just beginning to see the world through someone else's eyes. Your son has discovered that friends are important, but he hasn't the skills - nor the experience of older children - to help him have the words and actions he needs to show others he wants to be a friend.
Social skills come more easily for some children than others - as for some adults, than others! My husband is very quiet and has a FEW CLOSE friends - I, on the other hand, am more out-going and talk to strangers in the grocery store (much to the dismay of my 3 kids and my husband!) Yet Gary is a WONDERFUL friend - my best! The quality of friendship-making isn't affected by slowing the process down. Yet he is MUCH slower to warm up to someone, and I bet he was like that as a young boy too.
To help your son, I have a few ideas - and I hope one of them will help you when deciding how you can assist him:
- Ask one friend over at a time but different kids, rather than always the same one - that way he can practice playing and sharing on a small scale instead of with so many others around.
- Role Play with him - let him be the friend and you play him to show him what else he could say or do - Help him think what he can say instead of "will you be my friend" like some of the things I suggest in #3
- Encourage him to watch others and talk with him about how others get kids to play with them. This may help him see there are many things he can say or do, like offering a turn on the swing, saying, "Want to Play Go Fish with me?", or "Let's play ball, and get 2 more guys to play with us."
- Go to the library to find a book about making friends that he could read with you - I think there is a book in the Franklin series (Franklin the Turtle) on friend-making. Am thinking there may even be a book by Mercer Mayer or Bernstein Bears. Then talk with him about how he could do some of the things that are suggested in the book.
I know your heart hurts when you see your little boy sad ... my first desire would be to go over and swoop him up in my arms and hug him big - right there in front of his "friends!" Well, I still feel like that, sometimes with my son who is 27 and married! So I do it silently - and then even HE doesn't know!! I know your hug in the kindergarten class would be just as WELL accepted! HA! BUT... your special attention to him at other times (and you say your family gets much of your time - I'm so GLAD they do!) will help stabilize him through this rocky time of learning how to individuate. As younger children, their developmental goal used to be to gain security and trust.
Now, his job is to separate SOME from Mom and family, and learn to be independent and learn by trial and error what his strengths are and what his challenges will be. Good thing the trust-building came first - as he can fall back on that firm foundation at times when he is being challenged to learn something new. During time of stress, people fall back to the stage they just outgrew, so his whining and pouting are also very normal. Your sustaining him with words (spoken and unspoken through hugs!) of encouragement will help him move on to the next stage of development. However, be careful that you don't get too overprotective. He will develop faith in himself when he experiences that he can deal with disappointment and hurt feelings.
After you get the book" Positive Discipline for Preschoolers," I would also recommend you get he other books in the series as your children grow. Find some information on ages and stages from your county extension office (or other reliable source based on solid developmental research) also, to supplement the Positive Discipline, so you will know what behaviors can be expected at which age, etc. It's really interesting to see how often we can understand human behavior by learning about expectations in the domains of development (physical, emotional, social, and cognitive) at various ages.
Sending you my encouragement and understanding, as well as my best wishes for your family, Mary
Another answer from Cheryl Erwin:
It's wonderful that you're aware of your son's interactions with others and are interested in how he is perceiving his world. At five, he is just beginning to move fully into the world of his peers, and it sounds as though he's doing some "testing of the waters." It may help to remember that social skills aren't something we're born with: they must develop with experience and practice. These skills include the obvious--what we say to people and how we treat them--and the less obvious, such as our posture, facial expressions, and tone of voice. Children learn these skills by observation and by trying things out for themselves, and sometimes there are some bumps in the road!
It sounds as though your son is a bit anxious about his relationships with others. While I doubt there's anything to worry about here, you can help him by coaching him a bit. Invite him to play "Let's Pretend," and practice making a friend. Have him be someone at school, and you be him. You can try on different roles and personalities, experiment with different approaches and facial expressions, and see what happens. Encourage your son to draw his own conclusions.
It's also true that some personality styles seek approval more than do others. This tendency can be exacerbated by offering too much praise, especially the flowery, insincere sort (unfortunately, schools are often the worst offenders). Praise sometimes trains children to need constant attention and approval: if they're not being told each moment of the day that they're special and talented, they doubt it and ask for reassurance. One of the best things you can do is to take time to teach your son life skills, to give him opportunities to flex his wings and try new things, and to be sure you encourage effort and not just success. As he gains in confidence and true self-esteem, his need for others approval may diminish. But remember--it's a tough world out there when you're only five and are trying to find belonging!
Be patient, help him find the good in himself and others, and have faith--
Cheryl Erwin, MA, MFT
Certified Positive Discipline Associate