Kids want — and need – friends, but making them isn’t necessarily intuitive or easy.
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 prodding.
“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.
While you can’t play matchmaker in the classroom, here are a few ways to set your child up for social success.
Quick Tips to Help Kids to Make Friends
Pack lunches that are easy to share.
Nothing makes a better icebreaker than homemade cookies. It might not be the basis for a “forever besties” kind of friendship, but it’s a starting point.
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.
Sign them up for activities.
Extracurricular activities are a great way for your child to branch out. Friendships born of a common interest-whether it’s soccer, bug-hunting or volunteering at the library-are likely to be deeper and longer-lasting than those born of convenience. But be sure not to over schedule your kids, as this can water down their commitment to both the activity and the friends they make there.
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.
Friendship tips for toddlers
- 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,” Dr. Tiffany Sanders, a psychologist who has worked in Naperville and Lake Forest schools. Just being around kids is a good step.
- Skills to master: Parallel play, exploring new environments.
It’s never too early to start exposing your kids to others their age. While you’re swapping social media 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 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 spit bubbles.
“Up until this point, they’ve been the center of their own universe,” says Sanders. “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.
Friendship tips for preschoolers
- 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, empathy.
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.
Friendship tips for early elementary students
- 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, reciprocity.
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. 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.
Friendship tips for late elementary students and older
- 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.
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.
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