Parenting A Slow-to-Get-Started Child

Q: Our 5 year old son, Donnie, appears to lack confidence. He resists trying new things, gives up easily if he doesn’t get something right away, and occasionally calls himself stupid. Most of the kids in his neighborhood are older and he is one of the younger children in his kindergarten class. In school, he seems more interested in playing than learning new skills. He needs a lot of adult supervision and encouragement to stick with anything that is challenging. He is not a demanding child. We almost wish he was. He has an easy-going personality and is often content to play by himself for long periods of time. We often find ourselves doing too many things for him because we become impatient waiting for him to finish. We have many questions? Should he repeat kindergarten? Does he have an attentional disorder? How can we build his confidence?

A: These parents came to me describing a type of child I often see in my practice. Their concerns were understandable but they were also caught up in the fear that what they saw now is what they would see in ten or twenty years. It is important to remember that children do not develop in a simple linear fashion. They handle some stages of childhood and adolescence with ease, others with difficulty. This particular child was an easy baby and a joy to his parents. Still, he has struggled with some of the developmental tasks involving socialization and work.

A more detailed history suggested shyness was part of the parents’ background and seemed to fit a description of Donnie’s behavior as well. He tends to stay on the periphery of group activities and enters in slowly. It is best to allow him the time he needs to warm up to the activity. But this is not always true of him. One of the keys in evaluating a child is helping parents to identify and focus on a child’s strengths. Donnie had his fair share. While he disliked the organized team sport programs (a concept I question for such young children anyway), he was a very agile child who loved gymnastics and swimming. The parents were pushing soccer and baseball because of a fear that he would be left out socially if he didn’t learn these popular sports. Their concern could be prophetic. In our suburban communities children who don’t participate in some of the popular sports may have some difficulty making friends. But it is too early to make that call with Donnie. Right now the focus should be on what he does well in order to build his confidence.

Besides gymnastics and swimming, Donnie loves building complex Lego structures, enjoys drawing, and likes to have his parents read to him. One of my main messages to his parents was to focus on what Donnie CAN do and less on his weaknesses. Their initial description of him left me with the false impression that he had few interests or skills when he actually had several. We concluded that the parents would increase his involvement in gymnastics and possibly have him take a drawing class. I also suggested taking pictures of his Lego structures and posting them as a reminder of his ability in construction.

Socially, I suggested the parents concentrate on arranging one-on-one playtimes which Donnie seems to handle successfully, especially with children who share some of his interests. As for more complex tasks at home and in school, break them down into smaller steps and ask him to do one piece at a time with positive reinforcement (praise and/or a sticker) after he successfully completes each step.

The complex question of repeating kindergarten clearly needed consultation with his teachers. Donnie is a shy child whose social skills were not yet ready for most group activities. Adding his lack of confidence, tendency to be overwhelmed by more demanding tasks, and being one of the younger children in his class resulted in my leaning in the direction of having him repeat. The school staff had a similar belief and could offer a different teacher so that it would not feel like he was simply doing the same things over again.

Donnie seemed able to accept the idea that children grow in different ways and that he needed an extra year to be ready to do some of the academic tasks. If anything he seemed relieved at not having to do what he currently perceived as “hard work”. Donnie is a child who may take longer to learn to put work ahead of play. Finally, there was no clear evidence of an attentional disorder. I thought he was primarily avoiding tasks he perceived as being too difficult.

Donnie was promoted to the higher level in his gymnastics program which served as an example of his special talents. The parents spent more of their time enjoying their son and developing their confidence that he would turn out okay even if the path he took was occasionally bumpy and not quite the same as some other children.