"IS THIS OK NOW, Justin?" Sam asked, pointing to the painting he had completed under his friend's close supervision. Lately, everything Sam does is submitted to Justin for approval, and I am becoming uneasy about this. If Sam doesn't get to sit next to Justin at circle time, he cries, and during free play, he waits to see what Justin is going to do and then follows him to that corner.
At first I thought this friendship would be good for Sam. He had been passive and shy at the beginning of the school year, not knowing what to do at the start of each day. But despite his hesitancy, I could see that he was competent. All he needed was a word from me, and the then-fourand-a-half-year-old could get going. Sam's skills have been at least at age level. He has a rich imagination that emerges after someone else initiates a story or play theme. He gets along well with the other children, yet he waits to be invited to play. We have been hoping he would develop more initiative in time, and I thought that Justin's "take-charge" leadership style could serve as a positive role model. Instead, the two boys seem to have developed a strict leader-follower relationship. And Sam is perfectly content with the arrangement. I don't like the idea of discouraging any friendship, especially for a child who has been socially uncertain. But what else can I do to help Sam become his own person?
The Parent's Story
PERHAPS SHYNESS runs in my side of the family. Like Sam, I was a passive child. But our other two boys (one older, one younger than Sam) are happy to assert themselves, at home or away. Sam takes whatever they dish out with a shrug or a smile. These days Sam is definitely comfortable being a follower, which is OK-to a point. But we all have to stand up for ourselves sometimes.
I had hoped that preschool would help him become more assertive. Instead, he has made a best friend who leads him around. For example, on a recent cold, rainy morning, my son insisted: "I need to wear sandals today. Justin said we have to wear sandals without socks." I am even more upset by Sam quoting Justin's orders not to play with a very nice neighborhood child whose company he had begun to enjoy.
While I am glad that my son has made such a close friend, I wonder: "At what price?"
Dr. Brodkin's Assessment
The parent and teacher share an understandable concern, but unfortunately so far, neither of them knows the other's feelings. It's essential that they get together and talk over how they might cooperate in guiding Sam. They may realize that the boy's attachment to a seemingly strong friend helps Sam feel more secure in school, and they may discover the important interplay between Sam's temperament and experience. He is by nature less assertive than many other children and not noticeably unhappy about it either. The adults watching him seem to be suffering more than he.
What the Teacher Can Do
Rather than discouraging the friendship, the teacher might begin to modify it. Her task isn't to try to change Sam's personality but to begin to introduce another dimension to it. And the teacher is the one person in a position to do such things for both of these boys. (After all, Justin's inclination to be domineering is not good for him either.) It's very likely that in the course of the school day there will be many opportunities to guide each child. For instance, if Sam paints a picture to satisfy Justin, the teacher might admire the work and then suggest that Sam give Justin an idea to carry out on a different easel. Similarly, the teacher can urge the boys to take turns in deciding what to play.
What the Parents Can Do
Sam's inborn temperament may partly explain his inclination to defer to others, but experience at home, at school, and elsewhere can either reinforce or modify such a trait. Since Sam's parents actively want to see some changes made, they should be careful that Sam's two brothers do not always win out by default. Instead, Sam should be encouraged to choose some of the games, activities, and outings for the family. In short, see to it that Sam has an equal voice.
Once the teacher and parent have supported many such subtle changes at school and at home, Sam may begin to feel comfortable asserting himself when doing so really matters.
The Challenging Child by Stanley I. Greenspan, M.D., and Jacqueline Salmon (Perseus Press, 1996; $14)
Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs, "Social and Emotional Development in 3- through 5-year-olds" by Sue Bredekainp, ed., and Carol Copple, ed. (NAEYC, 1997: $12.50)
"The Shy Child" by Alice Sterling Honig. Young Children, May 1987,42(4):54-64
"Working with Shy or Withdrawn Students" by Jere Brophy. ERIC Digest November 1996(ericeece.org/pubs/digests/1996/brop-s96.html)