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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.

Stressful social encounters

Of course, though all this antisocial behavior might be perfectly normal, it's certainly no picnic as a parent to withstand or corral. And it can make for some pretty stressful social encounters.

I don't think it's a coincidence that the playgroup Ezra and I attended for almost a year started to dissolve just as the kids  -- who were between 12 and 18 months  -- began to assert their wills in some not-so-delightful ways. We moms quickly tired of the constant bickering and hair pulling among the kids. Watching your child scratch a playmate's face can be mortifying. Jumping up every two seconds to manage a new turf battle can be exhausting.

And wondering what other parents are thinking of you and your child can take its toll. For my part, as Ezra sat mute and glued to my lap during week after week of our playgroup, I found myself constantly trying to overcompensate with tales of his spirited engagement at home. I hated to hear myself talk that way. And I hated how much other moms' judgments mattered to me. We stopped going to the playgroup because neither of us seemed to be having fun. The other moms must have felt the same; the group fizzled soon after.

"As soon as our children hit or otherwise behave 'badly,' we get embarrassed and uncomfortable," says Wendy Masi, Ph.D., a child psychologist and dean of the Mailman Segal Institute for Early Childhood Studies at Nova Southeastern University, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. "We wonder, 'How should I respond?'"

But your role, says Masi, is to help give your child the tools and experience to become more comfortable in social settings. It's tempting to avoid these awkward situations, but keeping your kid at home because he doesn't play well with others will only hurt, rather than help, him in the long run.

Managing the challenges

So how, exactly, do we manage the challenges our kids pose on the playground and at birthday parties? The first step is to recognize that, for your child, these so-called antisocial behaviors actually serve as coping mechanisms. If you can figure out why she's acting the way she is, you can respond to her in a more supportive manner.

A feisty, passionate kid, for instance, might rush happily into a group situation but then bite a playmate because she has no other way to release strong feelings of anger or excitement. A shy, sensitive child might be easily overwhelmed by the stimulation of a group environment  -- say, at preschool or the playground  -- and need to withdraw. This doesn't mean she's not interested in her peers; it's her way of making the situation more manageable.

Grier Mathews, mom of Jake, 5, Grace, 2, and Kaley, 8 months, understands that when Grace gets territorial with toys at their local playground in Corte Madera, California, the resistance isn't so much about a particular sand toy as it is about establishing control. This is important to any toddler, and perhaps even more so to a younger sibling like her, who's always trying to keep up with her older brother.

"I encourage Grace to share," says Mathews. "But I don't insist that she do it all the time. I think it's important for her to realize that there are some things she can have control over." That way, she's letting Grace feel like she's making her own decision to hand over the shovel  -- or not. Which is how she learned fast that when she doesn't share with the other kids, more often than not, they won't share with her.

It's also important to choose situations in which, given your child's temperament, he's got a good shot at success. For the 4-year-old who's had a hard time sharing, for example, you might suggest a playdate at the park rather than one at home. (At home, he'll be forced to tempt his playmate with all of his favorite Bionicles.) On the other hand, if your child's shy, like my Ezra, chances are he'll do much better at a one-on-one playdate with both moms in the room.

And when you can see your child's struggling with a tense social situation, be sure to keep your cool and focus on calming strategies. In a heated playgroup battle over a dump truck, for example, you can agree with him that it's hard to wait for a toy he's excited to play with ("I know you love that dump truck"), but remind him that hitting isn't allowed ("Still, we're not allowed to grab toys from other kids"). Then direct him toward the Legos.

A fine line

But there's a fine line between respecting your child's personality and caving in to it. "If your reaction to your shy child is 'Oh, poor baby. This must be hard for you,'" says Masi, "you might be giving her the message that she really is inept."

At each step, try to think ahead about what small gestures might make your child feel safer and more in control. For instance, the first time you visit a friend and her kids, you might stay for tea (and stay close by your child). Next time around, your little leg hugger might let you leave the room with the other mom for short periods. And as she grows more comfortable with her playmates over the course of repeated visits, she might play happily without you for extended stretches (and you can drop her off next time!).

Lerner says her first child, Sam, was easily stressed out by new situations. "When he was little, whenever he walked into a group, the first thing he did was knock down the structure that the other kids were building," she says. "Until I understood that he was overexcited and needed help calming down, we were completely at odds." So she came up with ways to ease Sam into social situations, such as getting him immediately interested in a toy that no one was playing with when they first arrived at a party or pushing him on a swing as soon as they got to the park.

What's encouraging is that socializing often comes more naturally with time and experience. By preschool, better language skills and greater impulse control make it much easier for a child to engage in the give-and-take required of friendship. At this age, says Masi, "kids are working on refining their social skills, figuring out things like how to break into a group or cope with rejection." They're also more capable of seeing things from another person's perspective. So instead of hearing (repeatedly) from their parents that grabbing is a no-no, they begin to understand why this behavior might make a playmate upset.

By about age 6, kids develop a more abstract and enduring sense of friendship, and they're learning how to actually be a friend. Your child will start to see certain relationships as special, with their own codes of conduct  -- and benefits. A friend is still a potential playmate, but he's also someone she sticks up for at school, someone who tells her secrets and trusts her to keep them.

Of course, socially awkward behavior doesn't disappear overnight, and your child's bound to have setbacks. When he does, try to view the incident as an opportunity to teach him a lesson rather than considering it a step back, says Lerner.

It's also important that you come to terms with who your child is, with all his strengths and weaknesses, because it's the only way he'll do that, too. "If you're busy trying to change your child, you're going to set yourself up for frustration and power struggles," she says. "He's never going to live up to your expectations."

Lerner's son, Sam, now 15, still gets anxious in new situations; he probably always will. The difference is, over the years, he has grown to understand this about himself (with his mom's help), and he's okay with it. These days, Sam goes to sleep-away camp and plays on team sports  -- social activities Lerner never thought he'd participate in.

The beginning of something bright

For now, Ezra continues to hang back from the activity in his classroom. He's slow to engage, cautious, guarded  -- in fact, I realize, he's a lot like me. Once the situation feels right, I open myself up. I don't have many friends, but the ones I have I love with intensity.

One day, perhaps, the situation will feel right for Ezra, too. There will be chemistry, a spark, the beginning of something bright.

It's a process that's started already. While I've been entertaining visions of Ezra alone with his peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the elementary school cafeteria years from now, he's been forging connections in his own quiet way. I was surprised to hear from Ezra's teachers recently that children in his class often encourage him to join them in activities, and if he's upset it's not unusual for one of them to go over and give him a hug. Somehow, in a way that doesn't cross my grown-up radar, he's making an impact on many of his classmates.

Just the other night, as I was putting him to bed, we spent some time naming the kids in his class. We lay side by side on our backs, looking up at the shadows on the ceiling. I learned that Zachary had been out sick that day, that Sydney never comes on Thursdays. After a pause, I started to tell Ezra about our plans for the next day: taking the recycling to the dump, watching the construction crew build a parking garage down the street. But Ezra stopped me.

"No, Mommy," he said, turning to me. "I want to keep talking about my friends."

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