Don't try to socialise your shy three-year old

It is normal for three-year-olds to want to spend time with their family.
It is normal for three-year-olds to want to spend time with their family. Photo: Hannah Argyle

Q: My three-year-old is somewhat shy and introverted. She socialises well enough at preschool, but on the weekends she just wants to hang out with family.

As an introverted person myself, I'm fine with that. My instinct is that full-time preschool is plenty of social time and it's okay to recharge with family time on the weekend, but my more extroverted husband disagrees.

So I'm wondering whether I should be arranging some play dates or more social activities.

A: Thank you for this question, because many parents ask me about this. And when I read this, I see two questions: One is about introversion and one is about socialisation of young children. Let's tackle introversion first.

There is much recent research into introversion and how valuable it is in today's culture. Many people are beginning to recognise that introversion has some positive qualities.

Susan Cain, the author of "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking" writes, "Introverts, in contrast, may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pyjamas. They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation."

So, introverts are not people who are focused only on themselves or getting "gratification from one's own interests." They often like deeper waters, closer friends and more in-depth conversations. They are often listeners, and we need those. Badly.

Cain poignantly writes, "Introversion - along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness - is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology. Introverts living in the Extrovert Ideal are like women in a man's world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are. Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we've turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform."

When we view introversion from this standpoint, of course your husband wants your daughter to have play dates. When it comes to socialisation and extroversion, more IS more! Even ambivert parents (people who fall in the middle of intro- and extroversion) believe that children need to be socialised so that they can learn how to play and how to be with their peers.

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And here is where the waters get muddy.

First, we don't really know (or I don't really know) whether your daughter is an introvert or just a normal three-year-old.

That's because it's 100 per cent normal for a three-year-old to show signs of shyness or want to be around only her family. Why? They are her closest attachments.

If they travelled for work all week, gave loads of presentations, and shook countless hands, even the most extroverted people would want to come home and hole up with their closest family and friends. It is natural for humans to retreat to the safety of those they trust most, and when it comes to children, this is true a million times over.

A three-year-old is an especially amazing example because you are just beginning to see the blossoming of a true individual.

The 3s are usually when parents begin to see the "no's" pick up, as well as the three-year-old's understanding that she is truly separate from Mum and Dad. But more important than this separation, three is a time when a child is especially attached to her inner circle. It is normal to hear a three-year-old say, "This is my mummy, this is my daddy."

This is an age, as developmentalists call it, of "belonging and loyalty." When you zoom out, it makes complete sense. Before humans can become separate entities, they have to feel deeply rooted to their group. The deeper the roots, the taller and wider the tree (and the child's separateness).

So, this little girl is away from her key attachments all day at preschool, and sure, she may like the crafts, the other kids and the teachers, but they don't hold a candle to her parents.

Contrary to what almost everyone thinks, children under five don't need to go to school to be socialised. You cannot force a child to be "socialised" any more than you can force a baby to walk. It happens when the time is right. And this will happen more with time and close connections with the parents and caregivers than by continually forcing children into schools at younger and younger ages.

Does that mean a three-year-old should not be in school? Or that it is bad for them? No, not necessarily. Because of our current culture, work schedules and more, it is often necessary to place children into a preschool or day-care situation. Many of these schools know that the primary need of a young child is to play, and they create wonderful environments for the children.

The point is that, ultimately, the child's deepest desire is to be with her parents. With you.

So if she gets to the weekend and wants only you, then you go with it. It is not putting off "socialisation" or holding her back in any way. It is recharging attachment batteries so that she heads back to school renewed on Monday.

In essence, my only advice here is to follow her need. Young children, unlike adults, feel all of their emotions in the purest and undiluted way. You can trust that when the three-year-old wants to be with you, that is what she really wants. And it is perfectly fine to not push any other agenda.

Does this mean you cannot take her to a park? Go to a place with a bunch of other kids? No, go ahead. Have fun. Just don't fool yourself into thinking that there is "socialising" happening. Instead, go for what's important at this age: movement of the body, fresh air, laughter and fun. That's it.

Meghan Leahy is a mother-of-three and certified parenting coach. She blogs at positivelyparenting.com

- Washington Post