The Evolution of Social Development In Young Children
I have found that one of the greatest pleasures and challenges of meeting the needs of children, is that they are continually changing. It’s hard to keep up, and when you have one of those very magical moments when you get it just right, you’d better immediately start looking down the road for What’s Coming Next!
I remember never getting it just right at breakfast time. My son would gobble his food down and look at me for more, so I would fix more the next day, and the next until I thought I’d gotten it just right. Then his appetite would suddenly disappear for the next three weeks. Kiwi was his favorite fruit until I bought eight kiwis on sale to keep up. Then he liked bananas, which we were out of. It’s not that I was catering to him, I just could never get in sync. This happens with food, sleep, clothing, toys, and behavior. Just when you have them figured out, they move on.
You’ve Got to Understand Their Universal Road Map
In order to be able to predict where they are headed, it really helps to understand child development theories and the stages that every child passes through as they mature. While we know that every child has unique qualities, they all take the same developmental steps in the same order because they are human. If you know that your child bit their sibling because they couldn’t communicate with their words well enough, and that their brains are not yet good at understanding the viewpoints of others, it would help you think of ways to help them. It would also help you know that they are OK.
Children between the ages of three and six years old are in a very unique stage of brain development. Jean Piaget (1896-1980) coined it as “Preoperational Thinking.” He concluded that children were not less intelligent than adults, they simply think differently.
Because of this, we can’t simply sit our children down and explain things to them and expect them to really understand. They are pre-logical thinkers, and understand the world through what seems like magical and egocentric thinking. At this stage, kids learn through pretend play but still struggle with logic and taking the point of view of other people.
Although it may be hard to believe it sometimes, three, four, five and six year old children are very interested in learning manners and courtesy. They move from remembering to follow a rule, to reciting the rule to others, to using the rules in a kind way with their friends and family. If you know this about them, it makes it easier to introduce new behaviors in a way that each age group will be receptive to.
Three: It’s All About ME
This is the time that many children start preschool. It’s the time parents and teachers work to plant new seeds of trust, love, and comfort in their new setting. The three year old’s job is to practice controlling his or her body and work toward independence. They refine important things such as separating from parents, putting on their own clothes, mastering toilet training, using language to express feelings, remembering to follow the rules, and getting comfortable with the routine at school.
Three year old children usually work next to a friend on a separate activity or alone. This is not because they are not friendly or loners. They see things from an egocentric point of view, which is definitely not the same thing as selfish. Let me give you some examples of this three year old charm:
Example #1: Julia (a famous interview of a young girl by Dr. Piaget)
- Piaget: Julia, do you know what makes the wind?
- Julia: The trees.
- P: How do you know?
- J: I saw them waving their arms.
- P: How does that make the wind?
- J: (Waving her hands in front of his face to make a breeze) Like this. Only their arms are bigger. And there are lots of trees.
One thing that Piaget taught us is that the mistakes children make are far more revealing than the correct answers. When they tell you how they think about a problem, you know if they really understand. Julia has seen trees move in the wind, but thinks they are waving their branches to make the breeze. This is called animism. Julia may also tell her mom that the moon and sun follow her around, and it rains when the sky is sad.
Example #2: Abbi (looking in a hand mirror while facing her grandmother)
- A: Grandma, look at my clean teeth!
- G: Abbi, I can’t see them.
- A: Right here in the mirror. See?
- G: Turn around so I can see in the mirror too.
- A: Abbi hands the mirror to her grandma and walks away.
Abbi could not understand why Grandma couldn’t see what she saw. The preoperational child’s understanding starts and stops with what she sees. Abbi may offer her dad her teddy bear when he is upset, because it is what cheers her up.
Jean Piaget said, “Children have real understanding only of that which they invent themselves, and each time we try to teach them something too quickly, we keep them from reinventing it themselves.”
Four: Getting It Figured Out
The four year old has had the benefit of experiencing the same things many times, and so their brains have made strong connections thanks to routine, repetition, and more complex language acquisition. They notice patterns, remember family events from year to year, and know more of what to expect than the three year old. Four year old children typically have good control of their bodies, “use words” when they are upset, and have memorized every rule we have ever uttered!
A four year old makes me think of a zebra because they want things to be very black and white and clearly labeled: right and wrong, good and bad, fair and the ever popular “No Fair!” No in between. They are making sense of their surroundings and like things to be in well defined categories.
Four year old children are definitely engaged with friends and fairness now. If a rule is broken, a routine disrupted, or a friend acts out of character, it can rock their world. Here are some over generalizations you may recognize from your time with the four year old:
- house flies sting because bees do (insects are insects)
- dogs are mean (after one dog bit her)
- cartoons are funny (she doesn’t judge them individually)
- boys are _____
- big things float; small things sink.
- if a child hits them once, she thinks of them as always mean.
The four year old will need plenty of time and experiences for her to truly understand and change her mind. It doesn’t help to just tell her. She may be able to repeat what you say, but that does not mean she believes it yet.
A four year old is just starting to develop TOM (theory of mind). There can be more than one point of view. There are important social implications, to be sure. Sharing because she understands how her friend feels (not because it’s a rule), that there are other good opinions besides hers, and she gets better at truth telling, keeping surprises, and noticing the similarities and differences in other people. A four year old begins to see how she is unique as well.
Five: Flexible and Positive
The five year old child is working on putting herself in the position of others, and has great potential for positively influencing her friends and younger siblings or classmates. She can empathize with the frustrated three year old and at least tries to mediate for the rigid four year old. A five year old child continues to use her words, but in a kinder way. She can be flexible enough to let a crying child go first, even though it’s her turn. She can be an ally to her teacher and parents and volunteer to clean a mess that she did not make. She can begin to make meaningful contributions to the family and classroom and see the importance of her place in the bigger picture.
She is ready to think about helping friends, neighbors, and even the earth.
You may be asking yourself, “Really? That doesn’t sound like my little one.” That’s because…
Children Can’t Practice What They Haven’t Been Taught.
Try talking about these specific skills as the need arises. They need concrete rules and strategies, not just a “don’t do it.” What’s more, a five or six year old is ready and very happy to learn what manners the world expects.
- listening skills
- how to have a give and take conversation
- make friends
- resolve conflicts without fighting
- how would that make you feel?
- words can hurt: lift ups vs. put downs
- that “uh-oh” feeling (conscience)
- what would you do if…
Role play, make lists, practice tone of voice, etc. These social skills come very naturally to some children, but others need to be taught. Check in to make sure your child has them in place, and know that social skills are an ongoing conversation.
Age appropriate social skills will make a person loveable, which is a gift for life.
Daleo, Morgan S. (1996). Curriculum of Love- Cultivating the Spiritual Nature of Children. Charlottesville, VA: Grace Publishing and Communication.
Drew, N. (2004). The Kid’s Guide to Working Out Conflicts. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing.
Kreidler, William, J. (1984). Creative Conflict Resolution- More than 200 Activities for Keeping Peace in the Classroom K-9. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman and Company.
Teaching Tolerance Project. (2008). Starting Small-Teaching Tolerance in Preschool and the Early Grades. Montgomery, AL: The Southern Poverty Law Center.
Wells, R. (2005).Yoko’s World of Kindness. New York, NY: Hyperion Books for Children