While you can't play matchmaker in the classroom, here are a few
ways to set your child up for social success.
Pack lunches that are easy to share. Nothing
makes a better icebreaker than homemade cookies. It might not be
the basis for a "future best man" kind of friendship, but it's a
Sign up for the carpool. Schlepping the minivan
to and from school is guaranteed face time with the kids your child
is surrounded by every day. You'll be surprised how much you can
learn from the rearview mirror.
Make your home inviting. This doesn't mean you
have to spring for the giant trampoline and candy bowl, but make
your home welcoming for other kids. Play dates will go smoother and
your kids' friends will be itching for a repeat.
They reach for the same block at play time. Their cubbies,
assigned alphabetically, are next to each other. He has extra
pretzels at lunch and isn't stingy about sharing.
Some friendships last a lifetime, some just until the end of
recess. Some will help your kids grow and build self-esteem; others
will prove to be bad news. But they're all important, and at the
heart is a quirky paradox of social development: Kids want - and
need - peer relationships, but aren't necessarily hard-wired to
forge them easily.
"We're social creatures, and that starts at birth, but actually
finding the people you connect with and who will help you grow and
develop isn't always intuitive," says Dr. Cynthia Lubin Langtiw, a
child psychologist and professor at the Chicago School of
Professional Psychology. "It's a learning process for kids."
And it's one that asks parents to fill a constantly changing
role: heavy-handed involvement early on, shuttling kids to play
dates and extracurricular activities, followed by a more
supportive, coaching role as kids hit their social stride.
Complicating matters is this: It's never more important to be
poking your head into your kids' social lives than when they least
want you there.
Remember, too, that making friends isn't easy for all kids. Just
like some children excel in math or reading, "interpersonal
intelligence" varies, Langtiw says. Some kids take naturally to
social situations, while others may need some encouragement. If
your child is a go-getter, she won't need much of a push to reach
out to others. If your child is a bit of a wallflower, check in
often with his teachers to make sure he's getting a little
"School socialization is a big pool, and some kids jump right
in," Langtiw says. "Others put one toe in at a time."
But everybody's going to get wet at some point, and teaching
your kids how to recognize a good friend -- and be one themselves
-- sets them up for success in the classroom and beyond.
It's never too early to start exposing your kids to others their
age. While you're swapping Twitter handles and shopping tips on the
park bench, your kids are picking up important social skills. It
may not look like much, especially for the under-2 crowd, but by
interacting with her peers -- making eye contact, babbling and,
yes, the occasional hair pull -- your child is learning a simple
truth: There are other people out there who aren't biologically
engineered to ooh and aah over her spit
"Up until this point, they've been the center of their own
universe," says Dr. Tiffany Sanders, a psychologist who has worked
in Naperville and Lake Forest schools. "Just understanding the idea
of a peer -- of someone who's at a similar place in terms of
viewing and interacting with the world -- is really valuable."
This kind of socialization is especially important for kids
without siblings, Sanders says. So if you haven't gotten around to
Baby No. 2, plan plenty of trips to the park, Mommy and Me yoga or
any other social activity that exposes kids to non-adults.
But don't expect too much. At this age, kids engage mostly in
what's called "parallel play," rather than interactive play. They
will likely tinker alongside each other but interact only
occasionally, if at all. Yet they'll be learning to share their
space, if not their toys.
Your role: Cruise director. At this age, you
control where your child goes and with whom they interact while
they're there. (Enjoy it while it lasts.) So schedule play dates,
introduce new people and places whenever possible, and don't worry
too much about sandbox politics. "Don't be disappointed if you set
up a play date and the kids never really interact," Sanders says.
Just being around kids is a good step.
Skills to master: Parallel play, exploring new
One day your 3-year-old is playing in your living room, while
you hang on his every move. The next, he's in a classroom with a
dozen other kids and no one is quite as impressed.
"This is the biggest social jump kids will make until they head
off to college," Langtiw says. It can be overwhelming and a big
adjustment, but for most kids, she says, it's a lot of fun.
Remember singles mixers in your 20s? The first day of school is
a lot like that. And just as you scanned the crowd for someone you
knew, your child will naturally gravitate toward familiar faces.
Their first friends will be kids they know from the neighborhood or
even that morning's bus ride.
When it comes to expanding their circle, most social development
is adult-directed. In her work with primary schools, Sanders
encourages teachers to set up their rooms in "pods," or small
groups of kids to encourage kids to interact more closely.
During preschool and kindergarten, kids move from parallel play
to more collaborative play. Turn-taking and sharing are still
relatively new ideas, but are starting to catch on. So suggest
activities that spark this new interactivity and encourage
give-and-take, like jigsaw puzzles or role-playing games.
Your role: Facilitator. Friendship is starting
to emerge as a concept for your child. It can be a bargaining chip,
offered for a turn on the monkey bars or a bite of a granola bar,
and it's often fleeting. "They know that they like being around
this person, but it's not necessarily enduring," Langtiw says.
"They don't quite understand the responsibility that comes along
with being a friend." Defining what a good friend is and learning
how to notice if someone is being a good friend is the best way to
raise your child to be one.
Skills to master: Sharing, cooperative play,
As children grow, they'll rely less on the adults in their life
to play social director and allow their own interests to guide
their friendships. Encourage their newfound independence. If your
child sets up her own play date, acknowledge the initiative and
follow up afterward to see how it went.
Kids in the 5-7 age range also start to more acutely notice
similarities and differences. The most obvious is gender. Whereas
in preschool and kindergarten, boys and girls tend to mix more
freely, that trails off quickly. Gender and race provide natural
groupings, Langtiw says, and while you should encourage your child
to have a diverse group of friends, recognize there are natural
affinities that help kids feel more comfortable with each
Kids know from a very early age the traits they like and don't
like in others, and much the same way two adults "click," kids
often instinctively know who they'll get along with. Sanders says
stronger forces, like who has the coolest toys at recess or best
snacks to trade, will often color their social decision-making
process. This is natural, Sanders says, though you should encourage
your kids to judge their friends by how they make them feel.
Your role: Training wheels. Like stabilizers on
a bike, you give your child a sense of freedom and independence
while keeping them balanced and safe. Guide and direct them toward
friendships that seem rewarding; when a friendship becomes
problematic, talk it through.
Skills to master: Social initiative,
Until your child is about 9 or 10, you probably know most of his
friends well. But that changes quickly as after-school activities
and sleepovers mean kids spend more time with each other outside
your oversight. The best response? "Stay involved," Langtiw says.
"It's particularly important at this stage to keep a pulse on how
your child's friendships are going because these are the friends
who are going to carry over into the teenage years."
It's not just about guarding against the slippery slope of
adolescence: Knowing her friends can actually help you know your
child better. You might learn something you didn't know by
observing common qualities in your child's social circle.
Your role: Coach. Your child probably already
has a "social batting stance" by this age, but you can help make
sure he's swinging at the right pitches. Help him to identify
potentially "toxic" friends, and use the inevitable sting of
negative friend experiences to reaffirm what it means to be a good
friend to others.
Skills to master: Adaptability, resilience,
sense of self.
See more of Liz's stories here.
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