As a parent, it can be tempting to control who your kids’ friends are, and arrange controlled play dates with one or two other kids at a time. This makes it easier for parents to keep track of their charges, but it’s not necessarily what’s best for your child.
Playing in larger groups plays an important part in your child’s social development. Cooperating with other children, establishing their place in a social group, and managing conflicting wants and interests are all skills that your kids need to learn in order to become successful adults.
Learning to Cooperate
Children that are playing with just one or two friends don’t tend to run into scarcity problems in the same way that kids in larger groups do. While they might squabble over the use of a favorite toy, they’ll mostly be able to play together without getting in each other’s way. A group of 5 or 10 kids, on the other hand, might all be clustered around two swings at the playground at the same time.
To share in cases like these, kids have to agree to take turns as a group. They learn to create social order through general consensus, rather than individual agreement. If one child doesn’t want to get off of the swing at the end of their turn, the others will enforce the social order to create a fair system. These situations teach your little one how social contracts work, and how to behave as a part of a larger group.
Finding their Place
Even many adults still struggle to find their place in a group, but this is a social skill that’s usually developed early in life. People naturally fall into different social roles in any group, large or small. Some are leaders, others are followers, mediators, problem solvers, or even providers of comic relief. The possibilities are endless, and these roles become a core part of our social identity.
Kids who don’t have the opportunity to learn ways to fit into a group can become socially awkward, which can become a serious impediment to their success. They may have difficulty meeting new people and integrating into new social groups or work environments that rely on these interpersonal group relationships.
Managing Group Conflicts
In one-on-one relationships, disputes are relatively simple. Your child wants one thing, and their parent, friend, or sibling might want something different. Even toddlers quickly pick up on how to haggle and negotiate for what they want. In larger groups, though, those conflicts are often between two friends, or between the group and an authority figure.
These types of disputes require taking sides, judging other people, reinforcing or breaking friendships, or weighing the value of loyalty to a friend or a group of friends against that of a trust relationship with a parent or authority figure. Making these kinds of decisions is extremely difficult. By practicing and making mistakes early in life, your children can build the experience they need to behave in a more mature manner later in their teen years, and as adults.