Parenting Preschoolers: A Starting Place for Social Graces

I decided to share with Simple Kids readers this post by Amanda Morgan of Not Just Cute, which originally appeared in May 2010.  With the start of school just around the corner, I thought many of you would find it helpful or perhaps have some insights to share in the comments. I know this is one of the posts that I personally have found so helpful as a parent of preschoolers. – Kara

From the moment I got this assignment to write about supporting social skills in preschoolers, every time my own preschool-aged boys threw a fit or tackled a playmate, I had to laugh at myself. “And I’m supposed to be an expert on this?”

The truth is the task of teaching our children social skills is a huge job. It’s not something any parent does perfectly, and it’s certainly not something that can be covered in its entirety in one neat and tidy blog post.

Beyond meeting our children’s basic needs, we as parents tend to worry most about their social development. Will they be polite when they play at their friends’ houses? Will they behave appropriately at school? Will they ever stop fighting?

There are a few things to keep in mind as we consider the social development of our children. They are reminders to help us to take a deep breath and respond with a proper perspective.

Photo by bluebetty

Consider Normal Development

Just because your 2 year-old bites doesn’t mean he’ll become the next Hannibal Lecter. Many challenging behaviors are absolutely normal parts of development. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t correct the behaviors, but their appearance doesn’t mean you’ve done a lousy job of parenting or that you have an inherently “bad” kid.

For example, selfishness is not necessarily a personality flaw for preschoolers. It’s the way their brains are wired; they are egocentric beings. To them, if they are happy with the toy they just snatched from another child everyone else should be happy too! Experiences in preschool or playgroup require a group of egocentric children to consider one another, helping to move them along the developmental pathway.

Additionally, young children are still learning to control their impulses. Consider a new baby whose arms flail wildly until, over time, the baby develops enough control to generate purposeful movements. Similarly, it takes time for preschoolers to develop the ability to move from acting on impulses to making controlled, thoughtful choices.

Social Skills Are Learned Skills

Children are not born knowing how to share or why they should say “please.” As with any learned behavior, there will be mistakes along the way. But with continued practice children become more proficient.

When a child struggles to learn to tie her shoes, we take some extra time to clarify the process and coach her through. We teach social skills in the same way:  give extra support and extra practice, clarifying and coaching until that skill becomes second-nature. It will take time and multiple failed attempts for a child to independently tie her shoes.Likewise, it will take time and multiple failed attempts for a child to master the world of social graces.

Conflict Is a Necessary Evil

As parents, we often try to free our homes of all conflict. We dream of days with no fights over toys, no arguments about who gets to be first, and everyone says “thank you” for the delicious dinner we’ve prepared.  A nice dream, but an unlikely reality.

Conflict should be managed, but should not  (and realistically can not) be eliminated. It is through social conflict that children learn to move beyond egocentrism and learn to adapt and problem-solve. So when the next shouting match or toy tug-of-war occurs, take a deep breath and recognize those conflicts as teaching opportunities.

Photo by hortongrou

Once we have those precepts in mind, there are a few good places to start building social skills in preschoolers.

Verbalize Emotions

Young children have the capacity to feel all the turbulent emotions we feel as adults, but a limited ability to verbalize it. When they can’t adequately communicate with words, they turn to behaviors. Then comes the kicking, the tantrums, the biting, etc. We see it as a failure to behave properly, when often it is a failure to communicate properly.

While this belief does not exonerate them, our first step is to validate and verbalize those emotions. We need to give them the words for what they are feeling, and help them to know that those feelings are OK,  the behavior is not. This process gives them the tools to express their emotions verbally in the future. It also helps them to know that they’ve been understood, which is often all they were looking for in the first place.

Be a Super Model

Because social skills are learned, it is important that we be very aware and deliberate in modeling positive social skills. We do this first of all by building a positive relationship with our children. They will learn to treat others by the way they are treated. Take note of your own behavior. Is it being reflected in your children? Model the behavior you would like to see.

For example, if your child is having tantrums, model calmness – especially during the tantrum. If you want your child to look at people when he speaks, don’t talk to him over your shoulder as you multi-task. If you have a shouter, reply with a soft voice. Find opportunities to teach through modeling, both explicitly (as in role playing) and implicitly in your everyday encounters with your children.

Photo by Mrinkk

Plan and Practice

Discuss and practice social situations separate from confrontations, free from the stronger emotions of a volatile circumstance. Thirty minutes into your daughter’s tantrum is probably not her most receptive moment. Be proactive. Read and discuss books with social situations. Experiment with social roles and dilemmas in dramatic play. Use puppets to act out a social problem your child can solve. Give children a script for specific social situations.

Play is a Child’s Work

Children need time and opportunities to practice their social skills in the real world. Remember that adults and older siblings often compensate for a younger child’s lack of social skills. Playing with peers is where the true tests come!

Solve Problems Together

Parents of young children are notoriously good problem-solvers. When discontent arises, we swoop in, assess the situation, then set timers, create turn-taking lists, or grab another item for sharing. We are so adept at problem solving because we get so much practice!

To truly benefit children for the long run, involve them in the problem solving process. It may slow things down a bit, but eventually you will find that you are “swooping in” less and less as the children become more independent in their social problem-solving skills.

Choose discipline over punishment

Now, I’m not trying to instigate a war of words here, just a shift in perspective. When the focus is on punishment as a reaction to improper behavior, we are only teaching the child not to “get caught” being “bad.”

When we choose proactive discipline, we teach moral decision-making. Instead of trying to control our children, we teach them to control themselves. Rather than governing out of anger, we guide out of love. Instead of punishing mistakes, we use those mistakes to teach awareness and accountability.

The bad news is kids don’t come to us with a complete set of social skills. The good news is they do come to us.

And with our help, they will learn to be polite when they play at their friends’ houses, they will behave appropriately at school, and yes, one day, they may actually stop fighting.

Daily life with preschoolers provides lots of opportunity for developing social skills. Have any of these techniques been helpful in your home? How do you help your preschool aged child develop social graces?

25+ Playful Preschool ActivitiesAre you looking for more ways to play and learn with your preschooler? The ebook Three to Five: Playful Preschool might be just what you’re looking for. Filled with ideas for creative, hands-on learning with math, science, and language skill builders plus art and play, too this ebook includes 10 printable resources and is available here.

About Amanda

Amanda Morgan is a full time mom to three busy boys and a part-time trainer and consultant for a non-profit children's organization. She also writes at Not Just Cute, a blog full of ideas that are more than just cute, for preschoolers who are much more than cute too.

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  1. …a really great, informative post! thank you.
    .-= johnwaire | photo´s last blog ..mother’s day shenanigans… =-.

  2. I’m happy to find Simple Kids via Not Just Cute. Thanks to both of you for the encouragement and inspiration.

  3. I love the section on discipline v. punishment I’ve been trying to explain this to my family for the last 4 years and they just don’t seem to get it.
    .-= LaToya´s last blog ..Mommy Mission Statement =-.

  4. What a great post! One of the most important things that I found with my boys was that helping them recognize their emotions and learning how to verbalize how they were feeling was a huge step. Working consistently on this helped stop the tantrums that at one point seemed a little out of control. Once they learned how to communicate better with me and with others things improved greatly.
    .-= Tina@RideonToys´s last blog ..The Radio Flyer Classic Red Car – A Wooden Delight For Toddlers =-.

  5. The section on the differences between punishment and discipline is perfect, and so needed. This is a great article, thank you so much for sharing

  6. Thank you, Amanda, for sharing your wisdom and for the reminder to take a deep breath and keep things in perspective. 🙂

    I tend to be one of those parents who strives for an always peaceful environment and I do cringe a bit (sometimes more than a bit) when my kids are having an argument. I see, however, the benefits of not rushing in to solve everything and allowing the conflict to be a learning experience and give them some space to work things out and to solve things together and not me swooping in to resolve it FOR them.

    “Find opportunities to teach through modeling, both explicitly (as in role playing) and implicitly in your everyday encounters with your children.” Yes! Good reminder!
    .-= Kara Fleck´s last blog ..Parenting Preschoolers: A Starting Place for Social Graces =-.

  7. Kara- That modeling reminder was as much for myself as anyone else! I’ve noticed a lot lately that I expect my children to look at people when speaking, but that I’m the multi-tasker I mentioned in the post, always talking over my shoulder or from around the corner. It’s a reminder we all need from time to time!
    .-= Amanda Morgan´s last blog ..A Starting Place for Social Grace =-.

  8. What a beautiful post and one that I intend to share!

  9. Very good tips. We’ve found it especially helpful to role play and read books about social situations with our daughter. Lots of practice and patience. And I too enjoyed your discussion of the difference between punishment and discipline: especially what they result in.
    Steph´s latest post: Being Truly Countercultural

  10. 2 Things I’m walking away with: (1) helping them verbalize their emotions, and (2) play is a child’s work. Such great concepts. Such great reminders. Thank you.
    I’ve started to see positive effects from talking about situations before they happen – now that my preschooler is old enough to remember and verbalize during the actual situations. It’s very rewarding. Thank you for this post! I drank it in.
    Steph (The Cheapskate Cook)´s latest post: An Efficient Kitchen: Preparing for Vacation

  11. First of all I would like to say wonderful blog! I had a quick question that I’d like to ask if you do not mind. I was interested to know how you center yourself and clear your head before writing. I’ve had a hard time clearing my thoughts in getting my ideas out there. I do enjoy writing but it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes tend to be lost simply just trying to figure out how to begin. Any recommendations or tips? Thank you!Hello there, just was alert to your blog via Google, and found that it is really informative. I am gonna be careful for brussels. I will be grateful in case you proceed this in future. Numerous other folks might be benefited out of your writing. Cheers!

  12. Perfect timing! I’m working hard to help my almost 3 year old be someone who is enjoyable to be around…didn’t seem like too lofty of a goal, but it hasn’t been easy! I think the thing that’s been most helpful is labeling my own emotions and also trying to label his. I try to ask what will help him when he’s frustrated, sad, etc., then offer suggestions if needed. Sometimes I can manage that, other times… I have to laugh, though, when my words come back at me–as in, “That’s not kind.” Perhaps he’s trying to make me be more enjoyable as well?!
    Lynda @ Rhody Reader´s latest post: Pardonable Lies by Jacqueline Winspear

  13. Unfortunately for my nephew, we dint expect him to grow that way. I mean, he learned a lot of bad things from his environment. Though we never allow him to go out, still he learn from those children, hearing them playing outside.

  14. Great reminders and tips. Thanks! My favorite resource vs. punishment is this:
    Debbye´s latest post: 5 Ways to Help Your Baby or Toddler Nap While Traveling


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