How to help a 5-year-old be more confident and socialize

August 2, 2011

Q. Because my 5-year-old son enjoys his small private school, has friends who go there, and plays two sports for which he loves to go to practices and games, I signed him up for summer camp two days a week.

But his best friend is on vacation, so my son didn’t want to go to camp today, which was just the sort of thing I did at his age. I said that he should go anyway and that he would have fun with his other friends, but when the nanny called to say that he was crying, I told her that she shouldn’t leave him there. Camp, I said, is not like school. It’s supposed to be fun!

My son obviously didn’t know that I was the one who let him skip camp, so when I got home, he quickly came to me, looked down at the floor and said, “Mama, I didn’t go today.” It was as if he had to confess to me that he didn’t go to camp because he thought that I would be upset with him. Why was my approval so important? Was this a normal reaction?

And how can I help my son feel more confident and learn better social skills, so he can go to places without having to bring someone with him? That was my problem for most of my childhood, and I don’t want it to be a problem for him.


It’s easier to cushion a child’s concerns if you know what they are. (Hadley Hooper/For The Washington Post)

A. You can’t expect your son to carry your genes without carrying a few of your problems, too.

Although your child is different from every other child who has ever lived, he is still a part of you, by both nature and nurture, and he won’t give up the traits that you disliked in yourself until he’s ready to do that. And that’s okay.

Your little boy is growing up at his own pace and in his own way because he has been programmed to follow a certain bent in life. It isn’t your job to change him but to accept him as he is and to feel honored that he told you the truth so quickly. His admission was not only normal; it was his way of saying “I love you.”

You can say “I love you, too,” by making him more comfortable in social situations and having occasional talks with him. Have them in the dark, so he’ll be more confiding, and concentrate on whatever is coming up on his calendar in the next few weeks. When you gently ask him what is best about his camp, his school, his friends or his life, be sure to leave long pauses so he will dare to mention whatever little fears he has.

You also need to anticipate his fears before they appear. If you’re going to the circus, bring along some treats so you can divert your son’s attention when the trapeze artist is about to scare him silly, and if you’re taking a plane trip, show him the gum that you’ll give him to chew on the plane. He won’t get so scared when he knows that his ears won’t hurt when the plane takes off and lands because the gum that he’s chewing will make him swallow more.

And if your son won’t talk about his fears? Bring them up yourself. It’s easier to cushion a child’s concerns if you know what they are.

If your son is nervous about making new friends at camp or feeling at ease with them, then ask the director for the phone numbers of a few campers so you can invite them over for a play date. Only ask one of them to visit at a time, though, since two children usually play together much better than three.

If your son wants to play a new sport, teach him some of its rules and take him to see a game before he has his first practice. And if your son has never met some of your relatives, hang pictures of them on his bedroom wall; ask him to say good night to them when he goes to bed and let him talk to them on the phone or better yet, on Skype, so he will know what they look and sound like long before they arrive.

It’s fine to use these and other tricks as long as you don’t try to change your son’s temperament. As Karen Horney explains so well in “Our Inner Conflicts” (W.W. Norton), children who are forced to adopt a different temperament can turn into neurotic adults.

Questions? Send them to advice@margueritekelly.com .

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