Circle time. Story time. Sing-a-longs. Classes and activities. Preschoolers and early-primary-school kids spend a lot of time doing things in groups. That generally works fine, given that this is a pretty sociable age and the activities tend to be super fun. Except sometimes…a kid doesn’t want to participate.
What do you do?
Forcing a child to participate is usually less helpful than letting a kid sit something out, notes Heather Shumaker, the author of It’s OK to Go Up the Slide and It’s OK Not to Share, and a mom of two.
WHY they do it:
Kids hesitate to join in for a variety of reasons. They may, for example, balk because:
- They’re worried about something (the activity seems scary, the leader is intimidating, the space is new).
- They’re feeling overwhelmed (there’s more stimulation than they can process just then, such as a lot of noise or bodies in a small space).
- They’re temperamentally slow to warm up or more inclined to learn through observation than participation. Some kids learn better through parallel participation—being in the same area but not directly involved unless or until they’re ready.
Groups aren’t for everyone, every time. Required participation at young ages can send the message that conforming to the group is more important than any very real feelings they might be having.
Letting your child hang back sometimes isn’t giving some kind of preferential treatment that will cause behavior problems, Shumaker says. To the contrary, it’s more likely to make him feel safe and respected—which makes comfortable participation more likely down the road.
“If he doesn’t want to do what the group is doing, it’s fine as long as his actions don’t disrupt the activity for others,” Shumaker says. (That’s her emphasis.)
Her ideas for how to support your child while still respecting the group:
Separate out your own fears. Parents (and, unfortunately, teachers) sometimes force participation out of a worry that a young child will miss out or not learn something important. Or we think, I’m sending her the wrong message…I paid good money for this…She’ll never get over her shyness if I don’t push. If feeling stressed or preoccupied, though, a kid can’t focus on what’s at hand.
Find a space where the abstainer can watch or be present without disrupting others. Maybe it’s standing next to you watching on the sidelines or sitting under a table. Many kids prefer to observe first. The child just can’t be running around the room or making noises in ways that distract the other children. Say, “You don’t have to do it, but this is what we’re going to do.”
Give your child an out. “That’s okay if you don’t want to try it now. Kids change their minds. You can go over later if you’re feeling different later.” If you push too hard at first, your child might be sheepish about giving in later.
Avoid saying things like this: “Don’t be ridiculous.” “There’s nothing to be scared of.” “All the other kids are doing it.” They make a kid feel bad—not more inclined to participate.
Realize that some activities are bad fits. Even if you spent money on it! A giant parachute at Mommy and Me class might be scary. Or the kids in dance might be too big. Maybe next year.
Different activities, different settings, different ages (even a few weeks or months) can bring about different outcomes. How we respond in the moment can build our kids’ sense of security and confidence—and contribute to learning—more than the group activity itself.
Photo: Mark Harrington/Flickr