As the parent of a little one, you know you’re the center of your child’s world. Attachment to mom and dad is a defining mainstay of childhood; securely attached babies do better in life, socially, cognitively, and even biologically.
It’s a system deeply programmed in our biology – evolution’s way of keeping parents close and baby safe. We know this in part because we share the sentiment with our furry predecessors. Baby monkeys will cling to their mother and cry when she’s gone, and little chimpanzees are known to throw temper tantrums when they’re separated.
Then again, our children are social creatures – a fact we’re reminded of every time our babies beam at each other during tummy time in mommy and me class, waddle over and hand a toy to a fellow toddler, or race around the yard together at preschool. True, nature gave our kids one or two main squeezes in life, but it also intended for us to live in larger communities, with multiple families, generations, and groups of friends around us. We need relationships, and our kids grow best when they’re connected to people beyond just us.
So what do you do – protect your time with your children or encourage their budding friendships? There’s no perfect answer since the two are far from mutually exclusive, and happy and healthy families exist all over the spectrum. But here are some ideas to keep in mind while you’re working out this ongoing mom-versus-group dilemma.
Babies are particularly focused on their parents. They learn the faces and voices of their special someone within days of birth, they preferentially smile at them around five weeks, and in the second six months – when the brain’s frontal lobes really come alive (making for true emotional connections) – they reach for, crawl after, and generally seek the closeness of mom or dad. Undoubtedly, time with a loving parent trumps all.
But babies are also social beings. Interacting with other family, friends, and caretakers exposes them to different personalities, helps them learn to trust others, and works toward giving them the sense that the world is a safe place. That’s probably why research shows that little ones who go to high-quality daycare do just fine – babies are innately adaptable and, as long as they’re with loving, attentive adults, they usually thrive in a larger social setting. To a certain extent, the quality of time with mom (is she happy, healthy, and attuned to baby) matters more than the quantity of time they are together.
Social life becomes even more important as a toddler’s worldview expands and she learns about give and take, sharing space and toys, and negotiating little squabbles, laughs, and sweet moments with other friends. If your toddler is home with you or a nanny at this stage, it’s the perfect time to expose her to a group setting through music classes, play dates, and trips to the park. And daycare works well for most kids, as long as it’s a thoughtful, loving place: Circle time teaches impulse control, and structured playtime helps with social development, for example. Even if it’s only “parallel play” at this point, your child needs to see and interact with other little toddling explorers. Beyond that, she’s also watching to see how you relate to your peers. Mom and dad are important relationship models.
Finally, the need for groups becomes almost non-negotiable in the preschool years. Most people think about the huge social boost kids get in preschool; they make friends, learn conflict resolution, and so on. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. By this age, kids actually learn information and critical thinking skills from each other. They solve problems in groups in a way that can’t be accomplished with just one-on-one interaction from a teacher or mom. Preschool may look like fun (as it should be), but the challenge of on-going projects and discussions (even tossing around ideas about what makes thunder) are invaluable to our kids’ mental lives.
You know your kid better than anyone, so you’re the expert at finding the right mix of parent and social time. And maybe the two go hand-in-hand; if you have a community of friends and family, you may not need formal groups as much, or you may opt out of too much formal preschool time. It’s also a question of your little one’s temperament – is she the sort who dives into a group and starts working the crowd immediately, or does she need more warm up, leg-clinging time before getting comfy on her own? Watch, and nudge your child just enough so that she’s challenged and stretched a bit, but so she always knows that you, her favorite person, will be there to scoop her up in the end.