Helping Your Child Make Friends

Remember that little ditty we sang as children?

“Make new friends but keep the old. One is silver and the other gold.” Its message was short, sweet and to the point. Treasure your friends, and they’ll make your life richer.

And whether we as grownups have a large social circle or only one or two true-blues, most agree that our friends do add an enriching dimension to our lives. So, as our children set off on life adventures — like attending summer camp, joining a sports team or enrolling in a new school — we wonder and even worry, “Will my child be successful in making friends?”

“First of all, children must learn to be friends,” says Gregory Ramey, Ph.D., pediatric psychologist at The Children’s Medical Center of Dayton, Ohio. “Research shows that our early friendships are a predictor for our success in forming friendships later in life. So, is making friends important to children important? Yes. Can you, as a parent, help?

Emphatically, yes. From day one, children must be taught courtesy — to say please and thank you. And they need to be taught to treat others decently, humanely and with respect — even those they dislike or disagree with.”

The best place to learn, experts agree, is at home. “As a parent the most important thing you can do is be a role model of a good friend to you child,” says Marsha Winokur, Ph.D., assistant chief psychologist and director of the Center of Psycho-Educational Service at the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services in New York City, N.Y.

“They learn the fundamentals from watching us — how we treat our friends,” says Winokur. “Do we work to resolve conflict? Do we open our home to others? Do we show generosity? We can tell children how to make and keep friends, but it’s much better to let them get a sense of it by seeing us.”

Donald K. Freedheim, Ph.D., agrees. “Families set the foundation for give and take, cooperation and the way we deal with others,” says Freedheim, professor emeritus at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and co-director of the university’s Schubert Center for Child Development.

The nature of friendship changes as children age and develop, experts agree. During the early years, parents get children together to socialize and play. We usually choose the children our children play with and do a lot of hands-on monitoring — don’t hit Johnny, let Susie have a turn, share your snack with Bobby.

“In the pre-school and early school years, friendship is all about having fun together,” says Winokur. “It’s about learning to play side-by-side as well as learning to play separately. And it’s about learning to read each other.”

Sometime around age 7, the parent’s role in helping his or her child make friends becomes less hands-on and more behind-the-scenes. “This is when we need to encourage children to develop interests — in sports, music, drama or some other structured activity,” says Freedheim. “These provide a good places for our children to meet other children with common interests.  And at this age, friendships are often the natural by-product or consequence of participating in an activity that gives children a sense of self-worth.”

To successfully pull this off, you need to have a good sense of your child, says Winokur. “Know his style — his strengths and weaknesses. Is he shy? Artistic? A klutz? And know your child’s comfort level. Is he more comfortable in groups or one-on-one settings? The goal is to help guide your child into activities where he can feel he has something to contribute, enjoys some success and feels good about himself.”

At this age, the idea of playing by the rules and good sportsmanship become very important, says Freedheim. “And cheating, changing the rules or bragging can be upsetting to some children. So it’s important to help your child understand that there are rules to every game and values in every situation. If a problem arises, take your child aside and help him figure out what went wrong,” says Freedheim. “The idea is to guide your child, not to embarrass him.”

If your child is having trouble making or keeping friends, try to step back and look at him with some perspective. Is he unpleasant or demanding? Does he always have to do things his way?  “Speaking frankly with other parents may help,” says Ramey. “Listen to what they’ve observed. Then work with your child on skills like courtesy and compromise — don’t just expect your child to work it out on his own.”

By around age 12, children’s friendships begin to more closely mimic adult friendships, says Winokur. By this age, children are more aware of their own strengths and weaknesses in relation to others. They begin choosing friends with common interests and shared values. Their relationships tend to be deeper and more intimate. And our influence in our child’s friendships begins to diminish.

“It’s very important, particularly at this age, to maintain a child-friendly home. In fact, it’s probably one of the most important things you can do,” says Ramey. “Make your child’s friends feel welcome and comfortable. That doesn’t mean you have to have Playstation 2 — although it wouldn’t hurt. But having a relaxed atmosphere with snacks in the refrigerator and pool table in the basement will go a long way to help promote friendship.”

Make it understood, however, that there are house rules and values. But keep them simple and straightforward — like no shoes on the furniture, or no roughhousing. “For example, we don’t allow our children to say ‘Shut up’ to each other,” says Ramey. “So if a child is visiting and says ‘Shut up,’ I say, ‘In our house, we don’t say that.’ It’s OK to let a child know what’s acceptable and unacceptable. Just don’t ride them.”

But don’t make the mistake of trying to be your child’s buddy, either. “That’s such a serious error,” says Ramey. “Friendship has to be reciprocal. You can’t have a friendship at different power levels. Parents provide love and emotional support but they also lay down the laws.”

If your child seems be struggling at forming friendships, loses friends regularly, or if additional problems arise at home or school, it may be time to seek professional help, some experts say. But otherwise, try not to become overanxious. It’s important for parents to understand that friendships ebb and flow, says Winokur. “If a child has a pretty good track record of making friends, he’ll probably continue to make friends in whatever setting he’s placed. Encourage him to draw on his own history, resources and successful relationships. And above all, let him know he has something special to offer as a friend.”

Some “DOs” and “DON’Ts” for Parents

We all want our children to have friends to call their own. But children aren’t born with terrific social skills. It takes work. The following are tips from experts who know what works and what doesn’t; when it’s time to step in, and when it’s time to step back. Here’s what they had to say:

  • Don’t try to bribe friendships with gifts or material things.
  • Do encourage your child to invite friends to your home or along on outings.
  • Don’t allow your child to be bossy with his friends. Friendships are based on equal partnership.
  • Do encourage your child to share during games and activities.
  • Don’t allow your child to brag or show off to her friends.

Don’t let your child barge in where he’s not wanted. If he’s not invited to a play date or party, don’t call the parent to ask if he can come anyway.