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4 Year Old - How to Help Make Friends on Playground

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Hi Dr. Laura,

My 4 1/2 year old son is very outgoing and friendly. At the playground, he will go up to children and try to initiate play or strike up a conversation. I find that, often times, children around his age or younger are either shy or, let's be frank, just rude. They will ignore him completely, not speaking to him and just walking away, or one little boy even told him once he already had his friends and he didn't need my son to play. This broke my heart as I saw the sadness and confusion on my son's face.

How do I teach him about this? What do I say? I want him to understand that its not HIM, that whatever reason the child isn't playing with him is that child's issue. I don't want him to feel rejected and internalize that something is wrong with him, as is what happened to me in elementary school. I know the long-lasting damage this can cause. How can I help him be confident and resilient enough to let this roll off his back without negative effects?

He will be starting kindergarten in 4 months, and I want him to be prepared. I've told him some children are shy, etc., but I feel that isn't enough. Thanks for taking the time to answer my question!


It's so great that your little guy is so friendly and outgoing. It's a shame that our concern about our children's safety so often translates into communicating a general distrust of strangers in our society. In my opinion, we shouldn't be saying "Don't talk to strangers!" but instead "I (or the adult who is with them) always need to know where you are, so before you go anywhere with anyone, always let me know."

And of course, playgrounds have the added complication that children who don't know each other are thrown together, and kids usually need us to role model how to initiate and how to respond, since this is a social situation where the structure is unclear.

Part of the problem is also cultural. In a tribal society where kids of all ages roam and play together, the older kids help the younger ones to learn these skills, by modeling what they themselves have learned. In our culture, we segregate kids by age so we remove their most natural role models, to whom they are best attuned (older kids.) Then we even remove the adult leadership, because the adults sit on the benches while the children play in the sandbox. We expect kids to invent social skills for themselves. That is not what nature intended. Watch any mammal species and you will see that adults engage in play with little ones to teach them life skills, and in group situations, the older "kids" engage in play with the younger ones, who mimic them.

In our culture, we have this idea that kids should work it out for themselves. Of course, we can't do it FOR them, and we shouldn't be directing their play or solving their problems. Children need to take the lead. But we can absolutely be their assistants and provide a support function when they need it; in fact, we owe that to our children. So don't feel like you're helicoptering if you join your child in the sandbox, at least at times. You will want to step back and let your child interact if things are going well, but parental modeling and leadership are so helpful to children in awkward social situations. You're modeling important social skills.

How can I help him be confident and resilient enough to let this roll off his back without negative effects?... I want him to understand that its not HIM, that whatever reason the child isn't playing with him is that child's issue.

As you know, we can't protect our child from everything, as much as we might like to. Peer situations can be the worst, because we have so little control. However, you can certainly tell him that it's information about the other child, not about him, and listen to his hurt when he is rejected. A child can get through anything, no matter how painful, if he has an adult he trusts to empathize with his hurt and confusion. For you to be able to fully offer him that support, you do need to get a little healing first for yourself, because as you commented, this has been a big issue in your own life. But I think your ability to empathize with him will help him through this.

But that doesn't mean you can't do something about it, either. Here's where the modeling of social skills I mentioned above comes in. Many four year olds are anxious when approached by strangers, even children. Many have been pushed around in a playground situation, or have been warned not to talk to strangers. I have noticed that because children spend more time than they used to with screens, they are not as good at interactive play, and of course our isolating society keeps kids isolated too.

You can explain some version of all this to your child -- they don't know how to make friends as well as he does, they are worried about having to share toys. BUT they, too, like to have fun. So if you and your son can start having fun together, the other kids may want to join in. For instance, if there is already a child in the sandbox and your son initiates and the child ignores him, you can observe "He isn't quite ready to talk to us yet, but we can play right here and all get used to each other."

You and your son can begin playing, making comments that the other child can choose to listen to or not. I am quite sure he will indeed listen, and pay attention to what you are doing. A version of parallel play. Eventually, you can smile and have your dumptruck approach his dumptruck to initiate again, so that you are initiating through play, which is the best route to connect with any child. Your son will watch how you do this. Since the other child has been watching you and your son play, he may by now feel safe enough to want to engage.

If the other child is rejecting, you can say mildly "My dumptruck wanted to be friends; he is sad. But the other truck isn't quite ready to be friends yet. He will honk when he's ready." That gives your son the message that this isn't permanent, isn't personal, and isn't the end of the world, and it gives him playful skills to use himself.

I don't think you have to worry about kindergarten. The teacher will set the tone and the kids will have ways of relating that meet her standards. So while kids sometimes do adopt rejecting kinds of play, kindergarten teachers are usually pretty good at "socializing" the kids not to reject each other. The playground in kindergarten is not the same as the playground at the park, where kids are not already related to each other by being in the same class or school. In fact, many teachers know that the first couple of months of each school year need to include a great deal of social skills work so that the children learn how to "live" together and work out conflicts.

However, I understand your desire for your little guy to have social skills to join a group, before he begins kindergarten and has to interact on the playground. Random encounters on the playground are not a "group." Sports team or music classes or gymnastic classes are all groups. Even a playdate with three or four kids is a group. All of these groups give kids the help of adults to structure and intervene and guide when necessary but also allow children to learn to interact in a group setting. So maybe the most helpful thing you can do for your son socially is to help him find a real "group" of children with a similar interest, that he can enjoy seeing on a regular basis.

I also want to comment on this part of what you said:
I don't want him to feel rejected and internalize that something is wrong with him, as is what happened to me in elementary school. I know the long-lasting damage this can cause.

Yes, it can cause damage, as happened to you. But your own pain will make this into more of an issue for your son than it should be. Kids really do take on the issues of their parents. Can you find someone -- friend, husband -- to talk to about what happened to you when you were little? Tell your story, surface the feelings, cry and rage and breathe your way through all those painful feelings so they can dissipate? You'll need a listener who won't try to solve it, who can bear your pain and just empathize with it. After that you will be a lot more able to help your son. I'm even betting that you'll see that the issue diminishes for him after you do this work. We really are a "system" with our children, and when we work on ourselves, their issues always get lighter. I have never seen it fail.

I also recommend that you get your son a book or two about social skills. There are a number of books at the end of the article at this link, that are great to help children learn about social dynamics:
12 Tips to Support Your Socially Worried Child

Most of all, enjoy your son. His relationship with you is actually his role model for all subsequent relationships. He will pick friends to be his tribe who remind him of his family. So your appreciation of him is one of the greatest gifts you can give him.
Dr. Laura

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