Toddler milestone: Socialization

When and how it develops

How did your child start connecting with other people? How and when did he start making friends? It all began with you. As his parent, you were your child's first playmate — the first one to laugh at his antics and respond to his babbled "conversation." With your help (and reassurance) he's learned how to interact with others and discovered how easy and fun it is to get them to smile, make faces, maybe even make "raspberry" noises back at him. For the next two years he'll build on these first experiences, learning to play games, hold conversations, make friends, and delight relatives. Learning to socialize is a lifelong process, one that your toddler is now discovering firsthand.

12 to 18 months
During the first year, your toddler focused mainly on developing physical skills such as grabbing and picking up objects and learning to walk. He enjoyed short bursts of playtime with others, such as Grandma and Grandpa, but he preferred you and perhaps a beloved babysitter or caregiver above all others.

It's a different story now that he's a toddler. He's increasingly interested in the world around him, though he still sees everything in terms of how it relates to him. As your child learns to talk and communicate, he's discovering other people and how fun it is to try to elicit reactions from others. (Toddlers love to flirt.) Of course, this is also the peak of many toddlers' separation anxiety, so your toddler may be unusually clingy and timid at times. Don't worry, this usually diminishes rapidly after 18 months.

Now is when your toddler will start to really enjoy the company of other kids, both his age and older. You may notice, though, that he and his pals engage primarily in "parallel play" — that is, they sit side by side but play on their own. Older toddlers (around 18 months old) start interacting more with their playmates but are fiercely protective of their toys.

Kids this age may go through a period when they act like mini Count Draculas, biting their friends, but that's usually related to their exploration of what they can do with their teeth and their inability to communicate what they need. Biting (and other forms of aggression such as pulling hair or kicking) usually diminishes as your child learns to express his feelings through words.

19 to 25 months
Around the time he turns 2, your toddler will start to actively reach out to other children. But as with any other skill, he learns how to socialize with others by trial and error. Right now, he's unable to share his things. That's because he lives in the moment and can't envision anything beyond it, so the concept of taking turns — of waiting to play with a toy until after his friend has had a chance — is meaningless to him.

Your almost-2-year-old may also be skittish around adults. While some toddlers are quite outgoing and tell anyone who will listen about their newest toy, many kids this age are intimidated by unfamiliar people. And why shouldn't they be? Grownups are much taller, louder, and more assertive than your toddler and his peers. When you host a party at home, for example, your child may bury his face behind your skirt and say nothing to your guests, or he may even cry and run out of the room. If he doesn't seem sociable, he's not testing you and being impolite, he's merely exercising his toddler right to take things slowly. Although feeling comfortable around older people is a good skill for your toddler to develop, there's no hurry. Your child will let you know when he's ready to sit on his auntie's lap or chat with your best friend.

26 to 30 months
Kids tend to become even more self-centered between the ages of 2 and 3. They don't yet have the emotional maturity to be able to put themselves in other people's shoes, and assume that everyone feels the way they do. But as your child gains experience around other children, he can start to get the hang of sharing and taking turns. He may not be generous all the time, but he can learn to let his playmates go before him on the slide, for example, or take the first cookie. But his attempts are still tentative, and he just as easily asserts his dominance the next minute.

At this age your toddler also may start to single out one or two friends he cherishes. When you watch him with them he may not seem particularly fond of them — he may even spend much of his time howling — but he probably mentions these friends at home, saying goodnight to them out loud, and recognizes them with glee when he sees photos of them. It's his way of letting you know that these are the children who have made an impact on him. They're his best buddies — at least as much as toddlers can be to each other.

While it may seem like a lost cause to try to teach a 2-year-old manners, your toddler is actually starting to learn the importance of social niceties. He may refuse to say "hello" to your neighbors when you introduce him, or forget to say "thank you" when his uncle gives him a toy for his birthday. But then again he may run back a few minutes later and say "hi" or give his uncle a giant hug. And there's nothing really wrong with his behavior — he'll learn these rules of polite society gradually over the next couple of years. But if you continue to treat him with respect, he'll learn how to treat others the same way.

31 to 36 months
Ever catch your little one deep in conversation with a pretend friend who's invisible to you? Don't worry; imaginary friends are normal at this age and pave the way for him to make friends for real. He's learning how to form deep attachments with someone else besides you, something you'll want to encourage.

At this age, your toddler is also fine-tuning his relationships with real friends as well as imaginary ones. He's becoming more in tune with others, especially you. He senses when you're feeling disappointed, for example, and will point out that "Mommy's sad." But he's not very good at it yet; he probably laughs when he sees his playmate trip on the sidewalk, or won't want to console his cousin when he cries. That's because he has yet to fully develop the cognitive skills necessary to be able to put himself in another person's shoes, the foundation of empathy. But that doesn't mean you can't model kind, empathetic behavior yourself when you're around him. You're his best teacher.

Some of your lessons in manners may sink in by this time; if you've been modeling considerate behavior all along, he's likely to show glimmers of it now, when his mind has begun to grasp the importance of being kind to others. But it's still unpredictable as rain right now, since he's still a changeable, evolving toddler.