As your baby grows and develops into a little person, social skills and confidence will become increasingly important. For your little one milestones, like entering preschool or going to a new park, can be terrifying experiences, or exciting new adventures waiting to be explored. To help your little trooper prepare for these new challenges it is important to inspire a strong sense of socially appropriate behavior and respect for himself and others. Though there are many strategies out there, these five are my personal favorite, because I've seen them work.
1. Play dates with older kids.
Play dates of any kind are great for toddlers. However, for learning social skills a slightly older child is a wonderful roll model. Just one or two older children are plenty, any more, and your little social butterfly might start feeling shy or get ignored. The ages of the older child or children shouldn't be more than a year older than your little one so they will still identify with one another. The benefits to your little cub will be quite obvious, but the older child will benefit as well. When older children play with younger ones, they build their sense of empathy and gain confidence too.
2. Sign up for gym class.
Or a dance class, or a karate class. Physical activity can help children of all ages overcome social barriers. Class settings provide a great social structure complete with rules, turn taking and example setting and following. These skills translate directly to social interaction, and the confidence your little ducky will get from learning new physical skills will translate into confidence when confronted with any new and intimidating situation. You might think that a toddler is too young for a class like this, but there are many classes available, including Gymboree, that are specifically designed with toddlers in mind.
3. Introduce manners.
As your little flower blossoms, language skills will begin to develop right alongside physical feats like walking and running. From the very beginning if you model appropriate manners, and insist that your toddler use them too, your little half pint will be ahead of the game when it comes time to interact with other children. Saying please, thank you, I'm sorry and excuse me are still some of the best ways to begin friendly conversations. Other manners, like eating with your mouth closed, taking turns and sharing might be a bit harder to instill, but starting early will make the lessons easier to learn when the time comes. And once your child has these skills, social interactions will be a lot less confusing and intimidating.
4. Puppet shows.
Puppet shows aren't just a great way to spend a fun afternoon giggling with your little playmate, they are also the perfect setting to model appropriate and inappropriate social interactions. A great way to do this is to make puppets using pictures of your toddler and some of her friends. Then tell stories about real and imagined social situations, like the time Suzy asked to borrow your toddler's toy rocket ship. Highlighting positive moments when your toddler made the right choice is great. Negative situations should mostly be imaginary, to keep a positive light on your toddler's experience. Also, try to cast your toddler's puppet in the roll of instructor to the other puppets, showing them the polite way to behave, and reminding them of fun ways to play together. If your toddler wants to control the puppets, of course let her. Then pay close attention to the way she makes the puppets play and talk together. Often a child's concerns and fears can be expressed more clearly through this type of play than through any other.
5. Ask your toddler for help with chores.
Nothing builds confidence better than a job well done. As your toddler begins to identify himself as a member of the family more and more, he will probably express interest in grown up activities. He may want to help sweep the floor, carry the groceries and wash the dishes. Every time you let him help he will learn that he has valuable contributions to offer the world. That may sound dramatic, but right now, you and your home are his world, and if he can offer a part of himself to make that world better for everyone in it, he must be a pretty great person. Whether you want to introduce standards that his contributions have to measure up to now or later, I just urge you to keep those standards reachable. For example, if he wants to wash the table it would be reasonable for you to require that he wash all around the edges. But if you insist that the table must be completely clean, with no missed spots, he may learn that he is not good enough. It is a delicate balance to strike, but as long as you express appreciation and show that you value your toddlers contribution, he will gain loads of confidence which will benefit him for years to come.
Many parents see themselves in their children, and many of our own anxieties about our childhood social interaction will color the fears we have for our kids. It's always a good idea to take a moment or two when worries start to crowd in to step back and take a good look at your toddler. We can hope to make the best possible impact on our little ones, but in the end, our kids will be their own people, with their own experiences. If you have found these tips to be helpful, please pass them on to any parents of toddlers you know. Questions, comments and suggestions are always welcome. Happy parenting!