There are few things worse than being at a playdate and noticing your child does not include others while they play. Let me start this all by saying that you are still a good parent even when this happens. A toddler’s desire to assert their dominance and keep toys to themselves is part of natural brain development. Learning how to include others is something every child has to be taught. I promise you that it gets better with time and the right nurturing. Here are some of the best tips I’ve learned over the years to foster a spirit of inclusion in your child.
Teaching Your Child to Be Inclusive
Model it in Play
Play is the work of childhood, and so much can be taught by simply getting down with them and narrating everyday life scenarios. Dollhouses or Little People are great ways to encourage this. Maybe your “people” are going to a friend’s house for a playdate, and Sally invites Joe to play with her toy cars. Or perhaps Cindy is sad because Sally and Joe are playing together with a toy she wanted to play with. Talk through how Sally and Joe might invite Cindy to take a turn and join in. This can be done for all situations, not just learning how to include others. The opportunities are endless!
Lead by Example
From a very young age, your child’s receptive language is consistently higher than their expressive. This means they are taking in a lot more than we think. Be particularly mindful of how you speak about others in front of your child (and the way you talk about others in general). This will have a lasting impact on their view of the world, friendships, and how to treat others. You are who they look to for guidance; are you modeling the behavior you hope to see in them?
Read Books About Inclusion
I could go on and on about the importance of book-sharing, not only for speech, language, and intelligence but for teaching valuable life lessons. Find books that talk about, including others. Find books that speak matter-of-factly on those with different abilities, skin colors, religions, upbringings, etc. When a child learns about those who are different from them, it makes them more willing to befriend that person. To be less afraid of the unknown and more excited for all the ways we’re different.
Use Social Story Before Playdates
Social storying is something I use daily as a parent. There are all different versions, but the simplest version is to talk in detail about what will happen (or expected to happen) before it does. As you get closer and closer to the event, you provide more and more details. An example of this could be: You have a playdate scheduled with a friend on Tuesday. Historically your children bicker and argue over toys. Often it ends in both children playing independently and both parents tired from refereeing. By using social storying, you can prepare your child to include others ahead of time.
How to Use Social Story:
- A few days before the event, you excitedly mention to your child that you have a playdate scheduled with said friend. You talk about how it will be fun to get to take turns with their toys.
- The day before your playdate, happily remind them that tomorrow you will be going to a friend’s house to play. Repeat how it will be fun to take turns with their toys. Discuss how it makes our friends sad when we don’t take turns or use unkind words and harmful hands. Remind them of a past incident, reaffirm them that it’s okay to feel upset or sad when a friend plays with a toy that we want but that we can take turns to make ourselves and our friends happy.
- On the day of the playdate, repeat the above but add in details like if your friend takes your toy, you can say “X.” Instead of using harmful words or hands, you can use your kind words or come talk to a parent. If your friend has a toy you want, you could ask to take a turn.
- Right before your playdate, repeat all of the above and continue to go into greater detail about scenarios that might come up and what they can do/what you desire for them to do.
There are many right ways to do this. Do what feels the most natural to you and your little family. Some families find it helpful to use pictures or books to tell the story. You can easily find photos of friends playing nicely together and save them to an album on your phone, and scroll through them when discussing these kinds of things with your child.
You can further add to this by telling them a social story afterward about what they did well. Building their confidence in how they can be kind to friends and discussing ways they might be kind again next time. All of this can begin as early as 18 months of age with a simplification of language used.
Give Positive Attention and Praise for Inclusion
Positive attention goes a long way when seeking a desired behavior. Notice when your child is including others, even if it’s something seemingly small. They will start to notice that they get what they want most—your time and attention when they are, including others.
Help Them Feel Empathy for Those Not Included
Sometimes the hardest lessons of all are the ones we learn the most from. If you’ve found that your child has been left out in some way, love and nurture their feelings. Acknowledge the incident and help them better understand how they can prevent a friend from feeling that way, too, by always choosing to include others. These hard feelings can also be referenced at the moment if you see your child being unkind to a friend. Gently remind them of how they felt and ask them openly if that’s how they want their friend to feel. Their answer will most likely be no, yet bear in mind that it is difficult for little ones to control their impulses. So while a behavior may appear unkind, it may merely be a normal developmental milestone.
With these simple yet powerful steps, your child will be that much closer to becoming a more kind human being. In today’s world, that is the best thing we could hope for: to raise our children to be a light to all they encounter.