Kids and Social Graces

Dear Miss Faith,
My daughter (age 2.75) takes a really long time to warm up in social situations, and seems to feel easily overwhelmed by kids with big energy, even to the point of growling at other kids. It seems like she’s so shy and I’m worried that won’t be ready for preschool. What can I do to help her?

Dear Mama,
First of all, I want to encourage you not to worry. Traditionally preschool/kindergartens started when children were three-and-a-half, and there’s a reason for that: the time from age 2 to 3.5 is one of enormous growth in the social arena. During that time, children tend to be very interested in social interactions, but they just don’t have the skills in place yet. Toddlers your daughter’s age are just starting to learn social graces. The world is a big place, and social interactions are very complex, and it takes a lot of practice for it to come easily and go well!

Toddlers Don’t Yet Have the Filters Created by Social Graces

At 2.75 years old, your daughter is just learning the social graces (like not to growl at children who overwhelm her, for example). For most children that age, the extended practice needed to create social habits hasn’t happened yet, so their temperaments come through very strongly, without the filters that are created through practice and social graces. Some children need to watch for a long time (your daughter may be one of these). Some children have the urge to give a death-grip hug everyone that they meet, and need to learn to watch other people’s reactions and back off when they overwhelm others. Alternately, I’ve had several children (both boys and girls) who will see a younger child and immediately walk over and push them over. It’s like they are magnetically drawn to do it. Although all of these traits tend to freak parents out, I want to tell them all not to worry.

I don’t want to say that these traits mean nothing, but I think that they mean a lot less than parents often seem to fear. That first child will not necessarily grow up to be shy. The hugger won’t necessarily grow up to be needy and co-dependent. The pusher won’t necessarily grow up to be a bully, even if he consistently pushes over children who are smaller than he is. Not only will they not necessarily grow up that way, but they probably won’t even be that way in two or three years! Remember what I said about preschool programs traditionally starting at age 3.5?

Supporting Children’s Social Growth

Our job as parents and caregivers is to figure out how to interpret children’s impulses in ways that are positive and growth-oriented, and then help children learn the social skills that they need.

  • For that “shy” child, it seems to me that viewing strangers (or even known people that have big energy) with caution before joining in is both normal and reasonable, especially if you think of it from an evolutionary standpoint, where it was important for young children not to run into danger. We can support her to watch and then step in when she’s ready, and to creates spaces for herself that are a little protected from the big energy of others.
  • For the hugger, we can recognize his impulse to express affection, and teach him how to do it in ways that others enjoy, by watching carefully for their reactions.
  • For our pusher, he is clearly drawn to those who are smaller than he is. Once he can control/manage his impulses, he will be able to engage with those other children in more constructive ways. In the meantime, perhaps we can channel his urge to push into “construction” projects, where being big and strong is something that we can admire in him.

Once we see what a child needs, we can help them learn these skills by putting them into situations that stretch them just a LITTLE. Vygotsky, the famous Russian child development theorist, talks about how children learn new skills when they interact with someone who can help them operate in their “zone of proximal development”. This is the area that’s just slightly beyond what they could do on their own, but where they can do it with just a little bit of help. This type of help can come from other children (esp. children who are a bit older than the child) or from a loving adult. So if chldren feel stretched just a little, and are supported by us or others who will help them navigate the waters as they practice, then they can practice those skills that they need to navigate the social world with ease.

So, recognize that your daughter needs to watch for a long time before she joins in, and is easily overwhelmed by big energy. Don’t enroll her in a preschool class with 30 children! Arrange smaller play-groups, perhaps with one or two or three other children. Teach her how she can create a more sheltered space for herself in a busy place. If you can see that she wants to engage another child but doesn’t quite know how, suggest to her the words she might use. By practicing social engagement in her zone of proximal development, she’ll become a watchful, thoughtful, engaged little girl.

Warmly, ~Miss Faith


  1. Thanks for such an informative response! Our little guy is only one, but I’ve been wondering lately about how the progression of social development works. Regarding preschool readiness, would you advise then not to enter them into a preschool program prior to 3.5? We have the option of sending him at 2.5, but we’re in no rush to take him out of his small home-based daycare. We may even send him at 4.5, or perhaps even not at all!

    • Sonja, it’s really up to you, but I think that a high-quality home-based daycare is often just the right amount of stimulation for young kids. Of course, I used to have one, so I may be biased. 🙂 But if your caregiver is lovely and your child loves her (or him), then absolutely, keep him there until he’s very clearly ready to move on. Strong, stable relationships are really important for children, esp. in early childhood, so jumping around less is better. Also, I have seen children really thrive from growing from youngest to oldest. I think that while many parents see the benefits of having their child be with older children, many overlook the benefits of letting their child BE the older child: it’s lovely to be bigger, and stronger, and smarter than the other kids, and have them all look up to you. Your guy has many opportunities in life be the youngest…let him live into that image of himself as being big and competent before you move him to a more stimulating setting.

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