Nothing brings more fun to a simple bike ride or a rambunctious game of tag than the friends you do it with.
Sure a girl can shoot hoops on her own in the backyard; a boy can dig by himself interestedly for worms, but add a friend or two and the dynamic of these activities spring to life. Suddenly we’ve got a lively basketball game! All at once we don’t just have worms, we have a worm zoo on our hands!
In this century marked by cell phones and computers – gizmos that were supposed to bring us closer and leave more time to do the things we want – something else has happened instead. Our techno-living has left little time for anything else. We don’t write heartfelt letters anymore – we send pithy emails. We answer our phones all day long and it’s usually work on the end of the line … hopefully sprinkled with a few friends.
Between work and family, not many parents have energy for more. If parents aren’t careful, the busy example being set may backfire: When our children are grown, will they make time for us? Will they be even busier than we are today? Will they have the support they need from family and friends?
Friendships are what ground our lives in peace. It is that warm feeling betweenpeople who know and like each other well. Friendly means not angry, fighting or hostile. Everyone needs more friends, and while friendships do happen naturally, effort must be made to keep ties strong and healthy.
The development of meaningful friendships outside of the home is more vital today than ever, given the pace families keep and the anxieties facing the world. Genuine friendships that endure for many years, decades or longer are rich support networks for children and adults to rely on when all else goes awry.
But it takes tools to develop initial friendships and time to understand what your children are capable of at each stage of their lives. What’s wonderful is that making friends can be easy. It’s in the keeping and care of them that effort must be made. Traits like loyalty, dedication, honesty and fairness come to mind. Help your child to develop a healthy understanding of friendship and when your little one smiles up at you and says, “This is my friend,” you will know it was well worth the effort.
Most babies spend the first year of life surrounded by caring family and that’s a good thing. According to Steve McFadyen-Ketchum Ph.D., a lecturer in the area of child behavior at Vanderbilt University, this is the time when children learn how people react to them. It is important at this stage that through the reactions of others to them, McFadyen-Ketchum says, children develop a sense of self-importance so their natural inclination to respond kicks in. The development of social skills with significant people in their lives sets the tone for the potential friendships soon to follow.
At age 2, the stage called “terrible” may be identified this way because this is when kids begin experiencing conflict in their relationships. They don’t understand how to compute someone taking away something they want, for example, and may bite or hit to express their frustration. How parents guide children toward handling early conflicts will determine their aptitude for managing future frictions.
If a child learns that biting is OK when he doesn’t get his way, he will bite. If the child learns that sharing matters, he will begin to share. At age 2, children are only beginning to learn the words they need to solve problems and express themselves, but they continue to need parental encouragement for positive behaviors. This, McFadyen-Ketchum emphasizes, is one of the most important thing parents can do: take the time to notice the good things your child is doing and react positively!
Between ages 3 and 5 is when children begin developing their first friendships, but according to author Zick Rubin in the book Children’s Friendships: The Developing Child (Harvard University Press), for the most part, these friendships are based on proximity: kids in the neighborhood over for playdates; children met in day care. Rubin says because their play is usually supervised, without realizing it, adults begin training children in the social skills that make for good friendships. Parents teach friendship skills such as taking turns, letting the guest go first when choosing games or snacks, being a good listener and being someone who cares about others’ feelings.
Janet Kean of Franklin, whose three children range in age from 2 – 8, says, “Parents need to provide a good example of how to be a friend. When children see their parents with an adult friend and see how they relate to each other, it gives kids a better idea of how to be a friend.
How influential are parents in the social lives of their kids?
“Absolutely influential,” says McFadyen-Ketchum. How a child responds to others is learned by what’s modeled to them.
Kean suggests that one of the best ways to help your child develop friendships is to allow children to have friends over and to also visit friends’ homes. This allows you to meet the parents, which can ensure peace of mind. Remember, too, that friendships are reciprocal: if your child is invited to play at someone’s home and all goes well, be sure to extend an invitation for play at your house.
It’s About Personalities: 6 – 8 Years
In the book Helping Kids Make Friends (Tabor Publishing), authors S. Holly Stocking, Diana Arezzo and Shelley Leavitt outline basic skills that make up the difference between a popular and unpopular child, noting that popularity emerges in kids between the ages of 6 and 8.
Popular children understand how to break the ice with peers, act positively with other children and manage conflict constructively. The authors offer four ways to help kids make friends:
- Teach kids to respect both peers and adults. They should learn to respect property and other points of view, too.
- Teach children how to manage conflicts appropriately, by problem solving and handling anger in suitable ways.
- Teach kids to give and share. Don’t force a child to share by taking a toy from him, but help guide him into giving of his own free will.
- Assist children in seeking out peers who are appropriate for them. Try to avoid relationships where either person is clearly dominating.
For kids who hover at the edge of the group, never taking a chance or making contact, Rubin suggests teaching them how to initiate with others. Parents can help children learn to say a friendly “Hello,” identify themselves and ask another child to play. He also suggests role playing for working out other problems that may be impeding successful friendships – a skill that can be continually used as kids grow.
Friends MATTER!: 9 – 12 Years
According to McFadyen-Ketchum, the preteen years are when children begin choosing friends with complementary personality traits and interests. Best friendships become set, but playground politicking can also come into play and sometimes children get hurt when other children “steal” friends away. During times like this, parents should be supportive and listen when children express hurt feelings.
If a parent sees or hears about their own child’s involvement in mean behavior, it’s important to state clearly that such conduct is unacceptable. Authors Stocking et al. suggest saying something like, “You know what? That kind of behavior is not right. We don’t act hurtfully toward other people and we don’t laugh about making somebody else unhappy.”
If your child is struggling at this age to make friends, parents should closely observe their child in social situations – what they do and what they say – in order to identify skills a child lacks and ways they may be turning off other children.
If you want your kids to follow the values you’ve given them, McFadyen-Ketchum says, continue to acknowledge the times when they do what you like, and remember, he adds, “It’s not what you say, it’s what you do!”
For children who have moved to a new area, who have special needs that cause them to be rejected by other children or who simply have trouble fitting in, making friends can be a painstaking, even heartbreaking task. Speaking from a parent’s point of view, Kean, who moved into the Franklin area two years ago says, “It’s really hard to see kids struggle to make friends. We have talked about it with our children out of necessity because they needed to make new friends here.”
When it comes to teaching kids how to treat others, Kean says The Golden Rule is very useful to her children: Treat others the way you want to be treated. Kean also values humor in developing friendships.
“They need to know how important it is to laugh at themselves and with others,” she says. “Flexibility is key.”
Come On In!
Your kids will be grown before you know it. When they reach their middle school years, their friendships will have a social life that takes on a life of its own – with you acting as facilitator. If you want to be able to keep enjoying them while knowing where they are and who they’re with, you guessed it: make your home the place they want to come to.
With four children of my own, I want my home to be a place where the kids want to be, and will continue to want to be when they are older. That means welcoming their friends and loosening up restrictions. It also means opening the refrigerator! While I’d love my home to be immaculate and peaceful, when the gang’s all here, it’s just not.
The home where friends are welcome will ring with happy chaos. It may not be the biggest or best house on the block, but it will be cherished. And guess what? All too soon it will be silent when the kids have grown and moved away. Hopefully, by then, your phone will be ringing off the hook – with family and friends just dying to talk!
Susan Brooke Day is editor in chief of this publication.