Babies are born dependent. In order to survive and thrive, they need other human beings. As children grow, they form many relationships and weave complex networks of give and take which create the healthy interdependence of family, community, and culture. People do this well because we are biologically designed to live, play, grow, and work in groups. We are, at our core, social creatures. Affiliation is the strength that allows us to join with others to create something stronger, more adaptive, and more creative than any individual — the group.
The Roots of Affiliation
Your family is your child's first and most important group, glued together by the strong emotional bonds of attachment. Yet your child is also connected to other groups with far less powerful bonds — he is part of a culture and community. Membership in all of these groups will shape his life. In turn, as he grows he will influence them. It is in groups that your child has thousands of brief emotional, social, and cognitive experiences that help define his development. The capacity to join in, contribute to, and benefit from groups is essential to his healthy development.
The Importance of Learning to Engage
From his primary relationship with you, your child has learned social language and basic rules of interaction. The importance of these rules is reinforced by his dependence on you and your inherent size, strength, and power. However, none of these factors is present when your child first starts to interact with other young children. Because of this, children tend to be better at engaging and affiliating with adults than with other kids. The "rules" of social engagement and communication between children take time and experience to learn.
How Children Grasp Group Dynamics
As children grow, they become better at maintaining and managing multiple relationships. Structured and regulated group interactions such as those in a preschool classroom help develop these skills. Picking a partner to work on a task or play a game with provides opportunities to wait, share, take turns, cooperate, and communicate with others. The games and the tasks increase in complexity as your child grows.
Problems arise when there is a mismatch between your child's social skills and the demands of the game or task. Some team sports, for example, are introduced far too early. Five-year-olds playing soccer can mimic play, but they are not playing as a team — all nine kids are chasing the ball everywhere on the field. Only later can they really understand how to work together. While it is fine for young kids to play soccer, it is important for parents and other adults to understand that they will be limited not just by their physical skills but by their social skills.
Helping a Child Who Needs Support
The majority of children who have problems in groups have yet to learn how to self-regulate or reach out to others. They do not easily learn social cues and often act in impulsive or immature ways when they do not get what they want. This makes other children avoid them, which creates a negative cycle — fewer opportunities to socialize leads to slower social learning. Over time, these children stand out further and further from their peers in their capacity to be a comfortable part of the group. A distant, disengaged, or impulsive child won't be easily welcomed in a group. And in fact, if he is not part of a group, he may act in ways that lead others to tease or actively avoid him.
How You Can Promote Affiliation
- Give your child social opportunities that match his level of development. Once your child has mastered parallel play, he is ready for interactive play with a peer. When he can share, introduce games in which three children play.
- Don't micromanage your child's play. If she invites a friend over and they end up in different rooms doing solitary things, don't worry. Both children will enjoy the playtime best if they aren't forced.
- Keep expectations age-appropriate. Young children are not capable of complex affiliation skills. So when your child starts having friends over, make these first visits short and positive — it's better to end a good visit early than have children burn out on each other.
- Provide chances to practice social skills. Home life offers many opportunities to share, negotiate, compromise, and listen, all of which your child will need to do when he spends time with other children.
- If your child is shy or immature, gradually encourage social play. Start slow, and give her plenty of opportunities to interact with other children in a safe and predictable setting.