People say small towns are notoriously difficult for newcomers to break into socially. Folks who have grown up with each other or are related to each other naturally form a tight-knit community, and may not instantly include newcomers.
For parents of school-aged children with special needs, a close-knit community may present a bigger challenge. Who will invite my child to a birthday party? A playdate? Does my kid have any friends at all?
Challenges such as impaired speech, social difficulties, and poor memory and motor skills can leave your child sadly standing alone on the blacktop.
Before you start worrying about Little Miss Adorable and Mr. Sensitive, let me reassure you that at this point in our new-to-small town life, we have a very full social schedule. Little Miss Adorable has kindergarten birthday parties and playdates lined up to the New Year. Six year old Mr. Sensitive has a gang of boys he hangs out with, and even The Dunk has more than his share of playdates, and he’s only two.
What’s a parent to do to help their child socially?
Enlist help. At the beginning of the school year I asked teachers for a list of first names of the kids in both Little Miss Adorable and Mr. Sensitive’s classes. Teachers happily obliged, especially once I explained I wanted my kids to learn their classmates’ names and they could not do it otherwise.
Little Miss Adorable still cannot say most of the names of kids in her class, but she lights up when you go through the list of names, and she can usually tell you who she played with that day. I asked Mr. Sensitive’s teacher the first names of kids he plays with because Mr. Sensitive couldn’t tell me himself. He’d mumble about some kid with a Star Wars shirt or the other kid with a Cars shirt. Not very helpful, but we worked with it, and now we can ask about specific kids and who he played with that day. This is great for fostering communication skills.
Be active. We are out at community events almost every week, or invite folks into our home. In a small town most people go to the big events (parades, carnivals, boat shows, school movie night or whatever.) There’s a good chance you or your kids will run into someone they know. Mr. Sensitive might not know the child’s name, but it’s a good opportunity for Hubby or myself to have a quick chat with that child’s parent. Yes, it might seem like parents are socialising on behalf of their kids, but we’re happy to meet new people with similar interests. Churches or other community groups (Hello Ontario Early Years Centres!) are a great place to meet like-minded people. Get involved!
A friend of mine who works in tiny communities in the Arctic (towns with a population of 400!) would attend every community event and church service going – sometimes two different denominations in the same day! Although not strongly religious, she valued the time for reflection and meeting people. As a transient member of these small communities she felt the connections she made outside of her ‘working hours’ paid off in dividends. And honestly, it’s mentally and physically healthy to get out and do new things. So do it!
Offer the invite. Early in the school year we sent out invitations for a Hallowe’en themed party at our house. Parents and kids were welcomed (and yes, we used those classlists to create our guest list). It was a great chance to meet our children’s friends and their parents.
One thing I love about living in a small community is the informality of life here. I can invite friends over for lunch or a cup of tea and not worry about my messy house. (Although during my last lunch date I cleaned the kitchen while cooking lunch at the same time while our guests entertained themselves:-) Offer to host potlucks or kid-friendly game or movie nights.
Model and Practice Manners. This does not mean look like a fashion model, but demonstrate appropriate social skills, and support your child while they practice. Each child is at their own speed on this one.
During Little Miss Adorable’s recent birthday party she hugged each departing guest, offered their lootbag, and said thank you for coming to my party. This was not something we practiced before hand, she picked it up when we were saying goodbye to our guests. Painfully shy Mr. Sensitive is lucky to mumble a goodbye to his hosts, and we prompt and help as needed. The point is not to leave a child feeling victimized socially, but to help him feel comfortable and develop the skills for appropriate social interaction.
Be honest and helpful. Be honest about your child’s needs so everyone has a good time. Both Hubby and I go to parties with Mr. Sensitive because he’s too worried to be there by himself (and we wanted to supervise physical activities). That’s fine, explain to the parents that you’ll stay to help your child out (we’re OK to hang out in the background), and make sure you help the parent who is hosting the event too!
Just today I called a parent to RSVP for Little Miss Adorable and had to ask their child’s name, as Little Miss Adorable could not say it clearly. I didn’t get into details about Little Miss Adorable’s diagnosis, but simply explained that she could not say their child’s name. With special needs too much information can be overwhelming and scary for outsiders, I try to tell parents what they need to know to have a safe and successful time with my children. And yes, either Hubby or I will be around to help supervise that party too.
I realise there are many points I’m leaving out. New culture? New language? New country? All bring new challenges. And I know some of this advice seems ‘helicoptor-mom-ish’, I mean, I’m advising mild stalking and hovering around your kid at events. But my intent is to supervise, and help as needed with the goal of eventually fading into the background.
What is your advice for helping children develop social skills and navigate social life?