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Social Development in the 21st Century and the Evolution of the Play Date

When G1 was little, I toyed with the idea of homeschooling him. We didn’t in the end because DH was concerned about the social aspects of our children’s development. When I pointed out that homeschooled children actually do turn out more socially adept, he confessed that homeschooling wasn’t the problem. The problem was me. If I had been the networking powerhouse that my other homeschooling Mum friends were, he would have had no issue at all. Unfortunately, I am a socially reclusive hermit with a tendency to get lost in her own world. Sometimes, I even forget to come up for air every now and then – hardly an ideal social representative for children at a tender age.

“Homeschool students were, in many cases, more “socially adept” and mature than their peers.” – Jeffrey Koonce, a school superintendent in Miller County, Missouri.

“The environment was a little bit childish. So many kids just wanted to drink and party. I already knew who I was, and knew what I was interested in.” – Kate Fridkis, an adult who was unschooled until she was college age.

“While some homeschool students possess a maturity that their peers lack, others can be sheltered, especially when it comes to exchanging ideas with people from diverse backgrounds. It depends upon how their parents approached homeschooling. It also depends upon circumstances other than schooling for the opportunity to interact with young people different from them.” – Kenneth Bernstein, a high school government and social studies teacher in Prince George’s County, Maryland.

Source: Tackling Homeschooling’s “S” word – PBS Parents

So we took the “conventional” school route and I relaxed in the knowledge that my children were getting loads more social opportunities than I would ever have been capable of giving them on my own. Was it enough, though?

The Value of Fostering Social-Emotional Development

If we want our children to be happy and to do well in life, then their social-emotional development should rank highly on our list. Here’s why:

On Happiness…

If you want to raise happy children, teach them how to make friends, because:

In order for children to learn how to make friends, they need to develop good social skills – especially emotional regulation and empathy.

Image Source: Pearson

On Success…

If you want to raise successful children, teach them how to interact with other people. They need to know:

  • how to communicate effectively
  • how to work together as a team
  • how to resolve conflict

For this, they need empathyperspective taking, and communication skills – in other words, social skills.

Social Development of the “Only Child”

This is a little more academic for me since we don’t have the “only child” scenario at home but I wanted to include the mention of it because the findings deviate from what many of us assume to be true. One of the common concerns about an “only child” is the “little emperor” syndrome – a contention that children with no siblings (especially the ones in China) are not properly socialised into society and, as a result, are over-indulged, lacking in self-discipline, and without adaptive capabilities. This idea has gained a lot of traction because it “makes sense”, unfortunately (or fortunately, if you are a parent with an “only child”) it is completely anecdotal and lacking in actual scientific research, according to io9. So if you’re the parent of an “only child”, relax. It’s not all doom and gloom.

Building Up Social Skills

So if social skills are so important, what can we do about it? Well, there are a number of activities we can encourage our children to take part in that will help them to build up their social skills, such as:

  • Neuro-Dramatic Play
  • Mindfulness Meditation – children who were taught mindfulness skills showed a 24% improvement in social behaviors. They were less aggressive and more empathetic and optimistic than peers without the training.
  • Sports – kids who are active in sports have better emotional management and social skills.
  • Music – children who learn music have better communication and social interaction skills because it helps children develop empathy and improve their ability to interpret facial expressions and body language.

But there is an even easier everyday activity that all children can and should get involved in and it is probably the most effective way to encourage social development: opportunities for free play with other children.

Social Development in the 21st Century and the Rise of the Play Date

I had never heard of the term “play date” until I became a mother. I am assuming that play dates are a relatively new phenomena that arose to fill a desperate need in the world of our 21st Century kids since they don’t have the same opportunities for social engagement that we did in the past.

When I was growing up, my parents never needed to organise “play dates” because, between playing with friends from school, the kids next door, my numerous cousins from our extended family, and the children of my parents’ friends, I was never short on opportunities for play with other children. I’m afraid that I cannot say the same for my own kids. Sadly, without a scheduled play date outside of school, they really don’t have much opportunity to play with other children. Although my boys have each other, they don’t play together the way they play with other children. They treat each other very differently from the way they treat their friends – they love more intensely and they also get a lot nastier. As Bronson and Merryman wrote in Nurture Shock, kids know they can get away with a lot worse when they are with their siblings because, unlike friends who are free to leave when they’re nasty, their siblings have no choice.

The funny thing about play dates is that they are the reverse of the way things used to be. Instead of the parents knowing each other and the kids learning how to get along with someone new, it is the parents that don’t really know each other, while the kids are familiar. Although play dates can also be a great way for parents to meet new friends, they have an almost equal chance of turning sour when parents don’t see eye-to-eye (just google “play date nightmares” and you’ll get the idea).

Regardless, as contentious as the play date may be, they do serve a purpose of giving children more opportunities to further refine their social skills outside of school and if you want to increase their effectiveness, the general recommendations are:

  • make a plan to have no devices – especially if your goal is social development.
  • include mixed aged children – younger children learn best from older children; while older children learn responsibility when they need to help out younger children.
  • stay out of the way – unless things really get out of hand (e.g. someone is injured, something is broken), mind your own business and let the kids work it out among themselves.
  • make it an opportunity for unstructured play – don’t organise activities, let the kids come up with their own ideas.

The recommendations are commonsense and straight-forward, and it should be as simple as that, unfortunately, life is complicated. We have parents who interfere when they need to step back and let the kids work it out. Then we have parents who don’t step in when they really need to reign in their kids. At the same time we must observe propriety – it isn’t our place to discipline another person’s child even if that child does wrong. It is a difficult journey to negotiate and yet it must be done if we want our children to learn these unspoken rules of engagement so that they can be successful and happy in life.



Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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