Q: My husband and I have an only child who is 4 years old. We would love to have had more or adopted but it looks as though he'll be an only child. We've noticed that at parties, he tends to sidle up to adults more than talking with other kids. We have other kids over to play but understand it's difficult for parents with more kids to organize everyone to come over or meet somewhere. How do I help encourage friendships now and going forward? Is there anything else I should be watching for as our child grows up?
A: Your worries are normal, so let’s address this from a couple of different angles: what is expected of a 4-year-old, what is expected of a 4-year-old without siblings and the stereotypes that plague families with only children.
The average 4-year-old, with or without siblings, is known for their demonstrative opinions, big emotions, budding compassion, appreciation of others and the ability to say “no” to just about anything. And although maturity is on the way, the average 4-year-old is still prone to meltdowns, especially while their sleep is shifting and their growth is so rapid. A 4-year-old may like to be with other children, but they are not yet developing deep friendships. In fact, because of their relative immaturity, 4-year-olds are easily exhausted by other children; trying to navigate others’ emotions is often just too much. Four-year-old children need much more adult guidance than most parents think.
There are obvious reasons your child gravitates to the adults at parties: as a singleton, he is good at conversing with adults!
Let’s say you had a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old at home. Those siblings would be duking it out for your attention, playing, fighting and generally interacting quite a bit. The amount of adult conversation with the child would drop considerably, and the need for the children to adapt to constant frustration would increase. It is simply a different dynamic than that of an only child.
Many children without siblings are drawn to adults and adult conversation because they are comfortable there. That is what they know. Thus, not only is your son not interested in “making friends” (which is developmentally appropriate), but he is also more naturally drawn to adults.
So, how much socializing should you provide for your 4-year-old? This depends on his temperament, your time constrictions and your awareness of the messages our culture sends us around socializing young children, especially when it comes to only children. In my experience, American parents have somehow been brainwashed into thinking that we need to socialize our young children, and this message is pointedly directed at parents of single children. This socialization myth has led to us continuously shoving our children into groups. Should your son play with other children? Yes, of course, but pushing 4-year-olds to spend time together does not teach them to be social. Instead, it increases frustration, which leads to more meltdowns, because 4-year-olds cannot handle conflict well. What they really need is a lot of outdoor play, very little technology and some time spent with other children with loving adults nearby. These adults shouldn’t micromanage play as much as comfort and bring emotional language to our exhausted preschoolers. Do not feel pressured to over-socialize your only son, and try to resist looking for problems.
Sure, find some play groups for your son, but don’t feel married to those groups. Have confidence that if you are promoting open-ended play at home, as well as providing strong boundaries (so your only child doesn’t become the boss), he will be fine. May he be more comfortable with adults? Yes, but you don’t need to push him into socializing with peers at this point. Soon enough, he will be in school and will be navigating all kinds of children.