Your oldest child (or only child) is quickly approaching school age. You have been curious about homeschooling, but you worry about how little Katie or Bobby will learn to interact in a group. Will your child need to go to school to learn how to work and play well with others? Socialization is not something that can be taught; social skills are a different matter. A child can successfully be taught at home the basic skills needed for interacting with other children, even if there are no siblings in the home.
Skills to teach your preschooler:
–Start by being an example of patience to your child. While waiting in line at the grocery store, explain how to wait calmly and cheerfully. Help your child to judge time by watching the other customers progress through their lines. Getting the focus off himself will help the child to learn patience. (I taught my children to judge longer waiting times by relating to things in their world: a few minutes’ wait was equal to a Bugs Bunny cartoon; other time periods used were half-hour TV episodes or 60- and 90-minute videos that they knew by heart. Patience came much more easily when they understood their wait would take one “Elephant Show” or one “Robin Hood.”)
–Not interrupting when adults are talking: “Let me finish my sentence first, and then I will see what you need. I know you are here, and I will not forget about you.” Make this reciprocal as you allow your child to finish his sentences without interrupting him. (True emergencies are always exceptions.) I taught my children to come and stand quietly beside me if I was speaking to another adult and wait a few moments for my attention. Many times I turned to them to hear their question, only to find out they had no request — they just wanted to be with Mom for a while.
–Taking turns: Play games together, beginning with just the two of you, then later add a playmate to increase the time that elapses between a child’s own turns. (Until a little patience has developed, it is very hard to wait for your turn to come around again!) Keep the focus on playing as the fun part, not winning, and do not ridicule the loser. We played many games (such as Scrabble) without ever keeping score, to ensure that the emphasis was on learning or using a skill and not on winning and losing.
–Help your child to see the Big Picture when having playtime with a friend. Discuss with your child before the friend arrives that the friend will be here for only a short time and that all of the toys will still be here after the friend leaves. Emphasize your child’s opportunity to allow his friend to have the same enjoyment he has with his toys. If your child has some extra-special toys that he is afraid might be damaged, put those toys safely away before the friend comes. I have watched as many a Mom ripped a treasured toy out of her own child’s arms and handed it to the visitor, thinking she was teaching her child to “share” instead of clutching it with what she considered to be unreasonable sentimentality. All it seemed to accomplish was to convince the unhappy child that the visitor was more important to Mom than her own child’s feelings.
–More game playing: do not play in such a way as to allow the child to always win. Playing is more enjoyable and lasts much longer than the moment of winning. The more games you play, the more opportunity there is for the child to see that winning is either random or related to skill. Help the child to develop the needed skills to improve his playing ability. Skewing the game so that the child always wins gives the child an unrealistic view and sets him up for major disappointment when someone else is victorious. Short games, such as tic-tac-toe, can be played multiple times within a few minutes, removing the focus from winning and losing.
Sportsmanship is a combination of the above skills. Regardless of the situation, if you can learn to accept the outcome gracefully, you can be pleased with your accomplishment. A good sport is always welcome; bad sports are not often asked to play again.
–Volume, speed, movement, etc. should be suited to your surroundings and circumstances. A park is a great place to run, jump, and be loud — but not when you are attending an outdoor wedding.
–Family “signals” for behavior are a tremendous help in discipline. We developed “the family whistle,” a specific melody of three or four notes that became our unique signal to “come now.” While not quite as startling as Captain Von Trapp’s system, our whistle aided us in finding each other when separated by a few aisles in large stores or in gaining the attention of a family member who had strayed a little too far. The whistle was more dignified to use than shouting and was rarely noticed by strangers in our midst. In recent years, I have been pleasantly surprised to hear a few other softly whistled signals in large department stores — obviously other families with their own “secret” signals.
One loud snap of the fingers became our “quiet” signal, used after “lights out,” in the car, or anytime a quick reminder was needed. The “snap” put the responsibility on the child to remind himself of the signal’s meaning, rather than forcing mom and dad into nagging as they repeated a verbal admonition to be quiet. Coincidentally, this device also worked on our dog, as he simultaneously learned to quiet himself and settle down whenever he heard a snap.
Children learn the basics of communication best through hearing language spoken to them. From the day my children were born, I spoke directly to each of them. Whether in my arms or in the baby swing, I was usually carrying on a conversation with Baby, giving a running commentary on whatever household chore was at hand. Bystanders may have thought me daft, but I felt it would give the child a headstart on language skills. I did not speak “baby talk,” but spoke to the tiny, enchanted face as though it knew exactly what I was saying. Language came easily to my children, and they both spoke with clarity and confidence beyond what most people expected.
An older woman I knew began babysitting her neighbors’ daughter, but became frustrated when she had trouble communicating with little Annie. The 3-year-old had difficulty answering questions. At mealtime, the woman asked Annie if she wanted a certain food, but the child would not reply to the yes-or-no question. A few moments later, the girl blurted out “Annie pizza!” The woman (expecting only “yes” or “no” as the answer) became increasing upset as she kept repeating the question and demanding, “Say yes or no,” to which the child would innocently reply, “Yes or no.” As the woman shared her frustration with me later, she asked why I thought the child would only answer in such confusing ways. There seemed to be a lack of some basic communication skills. Other children, younger than this girl, had no trouble answering questions, so this woman was baffled as to why this child could not do the same. (Also complicating the situation was the adult’s insistence on repeating the same question, instead of trying other ways to communicate with the child.)
As we discussed the situation, more behaviors were revealed. This very big girl ate her meals in a high-chair, using no utensils, yet she had no disabilities. All food had to be cut into tiny pieces and placed directly on the chair’s tray for her to eat with her fingers, even though other children her age sat at the family table and used plates and silverware. The parents routinely put the girl alone in her bedroom to listen to books on tape before her very early bedtime. The parents were both employed in well-paid professions, worked long hours, and spent very little time with their daughter. The lack of one-on-one time showed dramatically in the girl’s abilities.
To solve the problem of answering questions, I suggested that the woman should ask the child a simple yes-or-no question, such as “Do you want pizza for lunch?” Then when the girl shouted “Annie pizza,” the woman should patiently prompt the child to say, “Yes, I want pizza.” Repeating this a few times quickly taught the girl how to answer the question with the word “yes” and gave the babysitter a few ideas for dealing with obstacles to communication.
Children can learn to converse with other adults under the safety of parental supervision. When we were questioned by friends, neighbors, relatives, or acquaintances as to what we were doing in our homeschool, I often deferred to my children for the answer. If the adult was asking me about the children’s opinion of homeschooling, I felt it was silly for me to answer when my children were standing right there, capable of speech. I would turn to the child, repeat the question (if necessary, in words the child could relate to), and assure the child that he could openly share his feelings with my adult friend. Obviously, none of us wants to encourage our children to speak to strangers when they are by themselves, but we as adults know many people that our children do not know, and we can comfort the children that our acquaintances are all right to speak to when we are present. Adults sometimes avoid speaking directly to children, often because they assume they will only receive a blank stare from an overly shy child who believes it is unsafe to speak to any adult that he does not know. In the controlled environment of having Mom or Dad present, the child can confidently practice speaking to an adult and learn the art of polite conversation.
Lengthen attention span through listening and comprehension activities. Simply reading stories to a child and asking a few questions as you go will get them more involved in the process. Television programming now changes scenes at least every ten seconds, in order to adapt to the modern viewer’s very short attention span, so we must work on teaching activities that capture and hold a child’s attention. I gave in to the purchase of a video game set when I saw how it had the potential of teaching some valuable skills to my elementary-aged children. (This was the Super Nintendo system with one of the harmless Mario Brothers games.) The obstacle course aspect of the game improved the children’s attention spans, increased their memories (when they made a mistake, the scene started over), improved eye-hand coordination, and taught them anticipation. They had to anticipate what obstacle would come next, and, if an enemy would be coming on-screen soon, where it would come, what it could do, and what skill they would need to conquer that enemy. (I do recommend saving the video games for a reward after required work is done, and limiting the time spent playing the games. I also held veto power over the purchase of any games containing excessive violence or occult elements.)
Improve observation skills by having your child help sort out the toys when putting things away or by playing observation games. “I spy” was my favorite game to play with my grandmother as she did her housework. She would place her thimble somewhere in plain sight, and then call me into the room to begin looking for it. As Grandma continued with her tasks, I searched high and low until I spotted the tiny object. When my cousin was also present, we had to call out “I spy” upon seeing the thimble, teaching us patience while allowing the other person a chance to keep looking. I suspect it was also Grandma’s favorite way of keeping little ones safely occupied while she accomplished a few household chores. Now “I Spy” refers to a series of wonderful photo-books, filled with thousands of miniature objects. I find those just as fascinating as looking for Grandma’s thimble on her massive bookshelves.
Improve memory skills through games such as finding matching pairs from Go Fish cards turned face-down on the table. My own memory is very good, a skill I credit to much time spent in memory-building activities from childhood to the present. When teaching my children to remember past activities (such as where one may have left his shoes), I taught them to “walk backwards in your mind” through all their recent steps to “see” the pictures in their minds of where they had been, what they had done, and what they had seen and heard. It was a great exercise in memory — one that the grandparents began using themselves to find their misplaced eyeglasses!
Improve motor skills through tracing and other writing-readiness activities, using scissors, playing hopscotch, or walking along a 2×4 board on the ground as a beginner’s balance beam. Work on both fine motor skills (small muscle control: finger dexterity) and gross motor skills (large muscle coordination: arms and legs). Better coordination means the child has more physical control over his own actions and more confidence in his own abilities. Offering plenty of opportunities to use their developing skills (such as cutting paper with scissors) will deter children from perfecting those skills in mischievous ways (cutting their own hair, the cat’s whiskers, their clothing, or the fabric on the back side of the sofa).
All of these skills, though very basic, will prepare your child for interaction with a group. They will instill confidence in your child as he sees his progress, teaching him that he can learn new things. Once he has acquired these foundational skills, your child will be more than ready for you to present more formal subjects, such as reading, writing, and calculus.
[For an encouragement booster, see Learning to Walk — Seen as a New Lesson]