My 3-Year-old, the "Follower" -- What Would You Do?

Updated on June 01, 2011
R.S. asks from Jackson, NJ
10 answers

Hello moms!

I have an issue that is bothering me and I need advice. A few months ago I attended a PTA conference for my son's preschool. About a year ago, a teacher at the school expressed some concerns that his social development was not normal, in her opinion. She stated that he often did not seem interested in making friends and preferred to be alone. I contacted early intervention and discussed this with my pediatrician. It turned out that he is delayed by about 3 months in his social skills but both early intervention and my pediatrician did not seem concerned. He is actually advanced in all other areas of development. This teacher's comments surprised me because at home I found him to be very socially appropriate.

So, a few months ago, his current teacher told me, " I think he is fine...but he is a follower. He will not suggest anything but seems to prefer to just mimic what the other children are doing." And I am noticing what she is talking about. For example, a few days ago I visited a friend who has a 3 year old (just turned 3). She wanted to play soccer, then watch my son wanted to do the same thing. Then she needed to go potty...and so did my son. At one point, she went potty and refused to put her underwear back on and proceeded to run about the house naked...and, as if on cue, my son told me that his pants were uncomfortable and he wants to do the same thing. At one point, she refused to play with my son and proceeded to throw a my son awkward stood there and then told me that "Lisa" was mad at him and does not want to play with him anymore. It was as if he was constantly looking to her to decide what the next thing was to do. He never took any initiative.

I find that my son will do this over and over in social interactions with his peers. BUT, with us he is the total opposite! He is opinionated and even bossy at times. He always has an idea on how to put a new twist to a game or a way of playing with his toys and will often decide who will play what role...lke, he'll say, "Let's play trains! I will be the conductor and you be the passenger." This seems like perfectly appropriate play to me, but what he is doing with his peers seems inappropriate.

I worry that his behavior with his peers will, over time, set him up to be bullied and manipulated. He seems to carry almost a "yes ma'am" or "people pleaser" personality and I am unsure as to how I can address this in a gentle, encouraging way.

He has plenty of interaction with peers...he has been in day care since he was 7 months old! I don't know what to do, or if I should do anything at all.

Any suggestions? Thanks.

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So What Happened?

Wow, thank you so much mommies! You know, for so long I kept these concerns to myself...if you've noticed, that teacher's comments about his behavior being "abnormal" happened a year ago! The comment about the "follower" thing happened several months ago...and I tried my best to ignore it all but I could not help myself, especially after my visit with my friend and her 3 year old. Your feedback made me feel so reassured. That's true, he does not need to get it all perfect all the time. He really is such a smart and articulate boy and a fast learner, so I know that in the end it will be alright. Yesterday and today, I have been trying to role play with him, and I looked online and found some books about early social development that I will read. I will also look into the TaeKwonDo. Thanks again moms!

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answers from New York on

Nothing to be concerned about for a 3 year old. He's still learning his "role" in his environment. Continue to remind him to "take charge" when he's comfortable but not insist on it. My daughter exhibited this "follower" syndrome till 3rd grade. She then discovered music and excelled at it. She's now 11 and still waits for others to take charge on things that are not important to her. Other times she's quite in her element with leading the groups. From my observation with this type of children, those that mimick early in life, learn things easier and have better behavior in school. Those that have to have their ways will always continue to do so, including with adults and teachers. That would be a lot worse than a calm child.

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answers from Los Angeles on

What I would do during a play date is say something like “O.K. Johnny. It’s your turn to choose what to play next. What do you want to do?” Then I would take the lead. For example, if my son said “I want to play trains” then I would get the train set out and give each child direction. Which train they wanted, how they wanted to set up the tracks, etc. Once they started playing I would step aside and let them continue.

If when I asked my son what he wanted to do and he said “I don’t know” then I would give suggestions.

I feel that at times children don’t know exactly how to act around other children. Of course around you he feels comfortable and knows you will want to play whatever he wants to play. If he’s ever taken an initiative and a child said “No I don’t want to play that. I want to play this” your child may have felt rejected.

Give him time, direction, suggestions, have him make decisions but you need to assist. Role play with him at home.

In my opinion this is not a delay. It’s just your child’s unique personality. I don’t see anything wrong with it at all. After all he is ONLY 3 =-)

I had the opposite problem with my son. He was definitely the leader. I had to role play with him and help him see that his friends didn’t always want to do what HE wanted to do. He learned, and now at 5 yrs old, plays great but it took a lot of direction from me.

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answers from Los Angeles on

When you mentioned how he is at home I let out a sigh of relief. It sounds like he may just be a "people pleaser" in social settings, not wanting to rock the boat. The fact that he's reluctant to lead at day care may mean he tried at one point, found resistance, and chose to do it their way to not make waves. And some people are born "loners," something that no matter how we try to change will stay with them for life. And the world is composed of leaders and followers, we're all one or the other.

When one of my grandsons began kindergarten his teacher called his parents in for a conference about a week and a half into the year, told them that he was immature, would not benefit, could not learn, was not ready for kindergarten, although he could stay in the class for the year but would need to repeat it the following year! A week and a half into the year...

They made the decision to remove him from the school, and his mom and I proceeded to homeschool him that year. He's a bright kid and had no problems, he had simply been shy with his teacher and not wanted to answer her questions when she'd tried to quiz him. He returned to public school for first grade and has never had any problems.

My point is, teachers and school personnel often try to label a child with certain attributes that have a logical explanation.

I can see why you'd be concerned that his behavior could open him up to being bullied and manipulated in the future. Fortunately, but unfortunate that it's needed, in this day and age their are so many books and DVD's on bullying that I would take advantage of to glean tips on building your child's self esteem. Check your local library and ask a librarian for resources. To help build up his self esteem you might consider, now or in the future, enrolling him in a class like Tae Kwon Do:

Since he's more free to express himself at play at home why not suggest an occasional play date with a friend from his day care? I think this could help him, being in comfortable surroundings, to express the other more domineering side of himself.

Hope this helps some : )

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answers from New York on

Honestly, from the way you describe it, it sounds like this teacher is raising unnecessary alarms. Three-year-olds, by virtue of being three, are just figuring out social roles. He's not SUPPOSED to get everything right socially at this age.

What I recommend is simply asking the teacher to recommend a child who's sweet, not too pushy, etc., and then contact that child's parents and set up a playdate. During said playdate, encourage the kids to take turns having ideas. You can prep your son for this by sitting down with him beforehand and coming up with a list of fun things to do. Then, if he gets anxious when it's his turn to decide what to do, he can check back with you and have you read him that list.

For what it's worth, my own son was terribly shy and really avoided his peers at just-turned-three. We did playdates with carefully selected kids, and the difference was amazing. He now plays beautifully with other children. I don't know that he's always the group leader, but who cares!

Finally, it might be worth it for you to consider whether you agree with this teacher's values. I mean, we can't all be leaders all the time. People who are willing to put their own short-term wishes aside and be team players are often happier and more successful than people who insist on being in charge of everything. Your son sounds like a sweet, bright little boy, and you sounds like a great mom.

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answers from Madison on

First of all, being "3 months delayed" in social development does not sound like a big deal. I don't think it will be that significant, and there will be naturally that much variation among different kids.

With my son, who just turned 3, I noticed that he usually follows what the other kid is doing, when the other kids is -slightly- older than him. He has a friend he likes to play with, and she usually is/was the one who decides what they will do next. (But it started changing recently, as he grows older). When he is playing with a kid who is slightly younger than him, he leads more often. So even if it is a few months, they somehow know who is older and kids like to learn from older kids. My son gets transfixed when he is watching older (4-5 year old) boys play!

My advice would be to create opportunities where he can play with slightly younger kids (2-3 year olds) as often as possible, where he can take a more leading role.

When he is playing with a friend, you could encourage him to show his friend a favorite/new toy or game he is good at, so he takes initiative. "Why don't you show "Lisa" your favorite puzzle/lego/ball", "Can you show "Lisa" how to "kick the ball/build a tower" etc...

You can also encourage him to say "No", "Stop" or "No, thank you" when he is subjected to a treatment he does not like.

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answers from San Francisco on

No, you shouldn't "do" anything. You won't be able to change his personality anyway. And, he's only three.

Most people are followers. If we had too many leaders, the world would cease to function, because everyone would be demanding to get their own way.

Don't assume this will lead to him being bullied. If he becomes a doormat when he gets older, you can teach him how to stand up for himself. Until then, there is nothing wrong with his personality.

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answers from Raleigh on

I am interested to hear the responses others have. My 4 yo son is exactly the same way as your son. Bright, very intelligent, charming, and sweet. But sometimes withdraws with peers, or does the opposite- mimics them or follows the other child's lead often. My mother has brought it up to me several times. It really concerns her.
I have a degree in education and see many early indicators of the gifted child in my son. I was a gifted child, and from a very young age, just knew I was different than most kids. Gifted kids are generally misunderstood as loners or followers. They want to belong, and withdraw easily when rejected or pushed. They set high standards for themselves. They are generally extremely creative in both arts and imaginative play. They develop early vocabulary and thinking skills. With a captive audience, they are generally an effective leader- esp with adults. They think at a more advanced level which is more easily received by adults. Your son may be displaying early signs of giftedness. Do some research on it. It may put your worries to rest.

Take care.



answers from Honolulu on

You role-play with him, about social scenarios.
Things like this, is not an 'automatic' skill in kids. It is TAUGHT, to them.

So you teach him... about situations, and the ways he can react or handle it.
To be himself.
Just because someone is doing something, does not mean he has to copy.
Teach him concepts of right/wrong.
So that in the future, he can "DISCERN" what is appropriate or not. Per other kids and social situations.
Teach him how to speak up. How to tell the Teacher if there is a difficulty or trouble with other kids etc.

It is about 'practicing' concepts. With you. Role-playing it.
He is young. So, they don't have perfect 'deductive' reasoning for things/situations. Their brain is still developing. And socially too.
So you teach him.
And in time, the child will attain more 'skills' and aptitude for it.
Like a rock collecting moss.

I began teaching my kids those things from 2 years old.
They are not 8 and 4... and are very good about, and wise, about other kids and situations and in 'choosing' friends too.

Aptitude and skills with social situations and friends, needs to be taught.
By the parent.


answers from Chicago on

My son at times will do the same sort of thing - he's 4.5. I had received some social story books and one of them talks about kids interacting and doing not nice things and a boy sticking up for him saying "that's not ok". I do hear reports from my son that someone did or said something not so nice to him and he tells me he told a teacher. I regularly talk to him about at least saying, "hey, I don't like that - it's not ok."

In addition we talk a lot about how to initiate a conversation or play - he's making progress. Many times you kind of have to talk him through it a little and he'll figure it out. It sounds as though he is looking to his peers for how to act appropriately - which is how most of us seem to learn so maybe let him catch up a little and just remember to have talks abotu what is/is not appropriate.



answers from New York on

I hope in due time or as he grows older, he will change. Otherwise, it is a pity because if he continues to be such, he will be a follower for the rest of his life. It will be a difficult life when he is in a relationship and let the other party makes all decisions. Sometimes, it's not easy too married to a follower. I say so because I am married to one.

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