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Making Friends

Every day when I pick up my 3-year-old from daycare, I stand at the door and watch him for a few moments before going into his room. I want to peek into his world, glimpse his life without me around. Invariably, Ezra's on the periphery, playing by himself or standing and watching the other kids as they chatter, grab toys, or clap hands. His teachers tell me he's quiet all day, and at circle time, when it's his turn to jump and wiggle in the middle (a prelunch ritual), he always passes.

Funny thing is, at home Ezra talks nonstop. He's witty, curious, animated. He loves to run around. But get him among his peers, and he clams up and shuts down. He doesn't play with them. He doesn't join in on the fun.

It's painful to see your child so unwilling to connect with other kids. I can't help thinking he would have a much better time if only he decided to jump and wiggle, too. And knowing him the way I do, I can't help thinking that kids would befriend him in a second if he just opened up.

Plus, I wonder: Is it natural  -- normal, even  -- for a young child not to want to play with other kids? Will he ever learn to make friends as he gets older? Is there something I should be doing, or not doing, to help him navigate social situations?

Whether you've got an introverted child like mine, or a playdate devil who grabs and hoards toys, chances are you've been concerned about how he or she gets along.

But most likely you've got nothing to worry about. How our children behave around other kids in their early years isn't necessarily an accurate indication of their social prospects as they grow, say experts. Even the most aggressive toddler can turn into a well-liked sixth-grader; even the shiest kindergartner will someday be swapping secrets with a trusted buddy on the playground. For wallflowers and wild ones alike, it seems, a child's social side (or lack of it) at 2 or 5 doesn't automatically predict what it will be at 12 or 25.

"Learning to be a friend is a process that takes time and practice and experience," says Claire Lerner, director of parent education at Zero to Three, a national nonprofit in Washington, DC, devoted to promoting healthy development in the early years. Any child  -- whether painfully shy or minute-to-minute difficult  -- can learn this skill.

Toddlers, like my Ezra, are at the beginning of the social learning curve, where everything is new and scary and different. It's important that you be realistic about your expectations, says Lerner, and that you view this stage, with all its trials and challenges, as just that  -- a stage.

In fact, because toddlers aren't yet equipped with the language, self-control, and emotional maturity to manage the intricacies of connecting with others in socially appropriate ways, it's normal for them to be brutes. They hit, they hoard, they turn away when someone smiles.

Deb Abramson lives in Nashville with her husband and their two boys, Ezra, 3, and Levi, 2.

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