Do infants need to socialize?
Many parents I work with wonder how important it is to socialize their infants—spending time with other children the same age–to develop social skills.
Parents are usually surprised when I tell them that cooperative play and sharing skills don’t emerge until at least 3 years old!
Infants tend to interact by looking at or touching the other child. This is why babies tend to grab at other babies’ faces. They are not trying to harm; they are just exploring the concept of “other.” This is how babies interact, regardless of time spent with other children.
Infants do show preference for being around people they’ve previously interacted with. They will also show sadness (often a serious expression) when another child is crying.
By 12 months They will play in the same area as a peer and copy observed activities.
The next stage of interaction with others is the development of a back and forth activity. For example, by 12 months a child will usually roll a ball back and forth with another adult. They will play in the same area as a peer and copy observed activities. But regardless of time spent with others, they are not able to play cooperatively on their own with other children.
By 18 months, the child can perform an activity with another child but will need encouragement and guidance. This back-and-forth does includes hitting another child who grabs a toy, so adult supervision is still necessary!
Between 18 months and 3 years old, children will begin to show preference for playing with specific children.
It’s not until 36 months that simple cooperative play begins to emerge. This might include building a block tower together. However, it does not include negotiation around rules or problem solving when a toy is grabbed or the block tower is knocked down by the other child. A 3-year-old child is able to express wants and feelings but is only beginning to exercise impulse control with other children.
The development of impulse control is key to when children can play cooperatively with other children and without constant adult supervision. When a child is about 12-18 months they will exhibit some impulse control when an adult intervenes, but they are not capable of exercising impulse control with other children when there is no adult guidance. This is regardless of socialization with other children.
Socialization at young ages primarily affects a child’s desire and happiness to be around a familiar person or persons. But it does not create social and emotional skills before a child is developmentally ready. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seek out opportunities to be with other families with children. Just keep expectations realistic when the children are interacting, and be on hand to coach and support when needed.