Dear Mr. Dad: My 7-month old baby is happy and playful when he’s at home. But when I take him to my new dads’ group (yes, that’s a real thing), he seems to have zero interest in interacting with the other kids. The same thing happens at the park or anywhere else where there are other babies. I’m worried that there’s something wrong with him or that I’m doing something wrong. Is there?
Sounds to me like the only thing that’s wrong is your expectations. Until babies are about 10 months old, they’re generally not very interested in interacting with other humans except the ones they see every day and who feed them. It has to do with something called “object permanence.” Let’s say your baby is playing with a toy. If you gently take it away and replace it with another one, he won’t protest. And if you cover it with a blanket, he won’t look for it. As far as he’s concerned, it no longer exists.
But in the not-too-distant future—usually at about 10 months—you’ll notice a dramatic shift. His out-of-sight-out-of-mind mentality will gradually fade as he discovers that, gasp, objects continue to exist even when he can’t see them. Now, he’ll protest if you take away something he’s playing with, he’ll get excited when he sees a favorite toy, and he’ll look around for it if it’s not right in front of him. He’ll also start paying attention to other babies.
Paying attention to other babies doesn’t mean interacting with them, though. Babies typically do what’s called “parallel play,” meaning that they’re perfectly happy to play with a toy while sitting next to another baby, but they might as well be in separate rooms.
To adults, babies engaging in parallel play look like they’re ignoring each other. And if that’s all they’re going to do, what’s the point of getting them together? The point is that it’s a stage they have to go through. Although you may not notice it, those babies are occasionally glancing at each other and they’re taking mental notes on how to steal each other’s play techniques. Today’s fleeting interactions are laying the groundwork for tomorrow’s lifelong friendships.
It’s a slow process, so don’t expect too much too soon. Over the next year or two, it’ll look more and more like little kids are playing with each other, and you may even notice some behavior that will seem very much like cooperation and sharing. It won’t be. What you’re watching is actually a live-action play called, “Toddler Property Rules in Action.” It goes like this: “If I see it, it’s mine. If I’m holding it, it’s mine. If you’re holding it and I want it, it’s mine. If you were holding it and you put it down, tough luck—it’s mine. Once something is mine, it’s mine forever so don’t even think about trying to take it from me.” Like parallel play, these rules are a normal part of child development. It’ll be a while before they can imagine that other people might have feelings.
Despite all this, there are a few things you can do to help your baby develop friendships.
- Keep putting him in situations where he’ll be near other babies.
- Don’t expect them to play together: Plop them down next to each other, give them toys, and step back.
- If your baby is shy, withdrawn, or gets fussy, don’t force the issue.
- Limit these “play dates” to a few minutes.
- Praise anything that looks like sharing or pro-social behavior, but don’t expect to see too much of it.
photo credit: en.wikipedia.org