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Three Steps to Help Your Kids Make Friends

Making new friends can be exciting, and sometimes hard. This week we're talking about how you can support your children in developing good friendships.

If there is one nearly universal worry that parents share, it’s that their children will have (good) friends. Crank up the worry a few notches if you are the parent of a child starting school for the first time.

Do you still have friendships with any of the kids you met in Kindergarten?

Happily, I do. She and I share a perspective on one another that can only come from having known each other when we were at our most open and vulnerable. As a result, we remind each other where we came from.

I hope my son has that experience with one of the kids he's meeting now, but realistically most friends from elementary school rarely last into adulthood. But, those early friendships are still very important, because they often set patterns for the relationships that will follow.

I think this is why we parents tend to worry about this from the moment we hit the school drop-off. 

How then do we help our kids make friends?

I believe making friends is one of the aspects of childhood that you can’t and really shouldn’t try to do for your children. I view my job as one of support, in which I help him recognize and grow a friendship on his own.

My hope for my son is that he finds a good buddy, or buddies, that will walk with him through all the fun and follies of being a kid that, as the saying goes, "parents just don't understand," and for whom he can do the same.

With that in mind, I decided to channel my own worries this first year of school into being especially intentional to do specific things to help support my son in developing the kinds of friendships I hope he will be fortunate enough to have:

1. Teach your child what a good friend is.

This started way back in my son’s toddler days, as I patiently taught him not to clobber other kids if they had a toy he wanted.

These days we talk about empathy, recognizing emotions, and noticing the needs of others around him. We talk about how to start conversations, and how to listen to others. And because I think that countering bullying starts now, we talk about what bullying is, and how to handle situations when/if he experiences it, as well as what to do if he sees another kid being victimized.

I also want him to understand what a good friend is to help him recognize what kind of friend he deserves to have, in hopes that he can avoid choosing “friendships” with people who don’t have respect and care for him. I teach him that a true friend doesn’t knowingly lead a person they care about into situations in which they could get into trouble or be harmed.

2. Get involved, and get to know their friends and potential friends.

Volunteering at school, or driving carpool can be challenging to arrange logistically, or may not be a parent’s favorite thing to do. I’m actually excited to start doing my part around school in these early years. I look at it as an opportunity to meet and gain insights about the kids my son goes to school with, and learn about their families as well.  

While I’m not particularly adept at making small talk at drop-off and pick-up, I still make the effort in order to get to know the other parents. I'm also making an effort to open my home to friends and potential friends we meet.

A note about motivation: There are people who have suggested to me that I should do these things to “weed out” those whom I don’t want my son (or myself) to be friends with. Personally, I disagree with this thinking, and don’t feel it sets a good example for my kids about what it takes to genuinely be a friend. Bottom-line, these friendships are my son’s, not mine. Getting to know who he bonds with or has conflict with helps me support him better as he learns how to choose positive friendships for himself. 

3. Expose them to a variety of experiences and widen their circle.

Early childhood is for exploration, and meeting others who share their interests can lead to stronger friendships. So, for our family this means that we support our kids in trying out different activities, and avoid getting locked in too early.  

While we value the connections we've already built pre-school in our neighborhood, clubs, church and elsewhere, encouraging diversity earlier in friendships I think also lays the groundwork for developing the appreciation of differences. This leads to tolerance for others, and the ability to have friendships (and later work) with all sorts of people. 

Above all, model what being a good friend is. Kids learn far more from watching what you do, than what you say! 

Now, let's hear from you. Do you worry about your child making friends? How have you helped your child develop good friendships?

ElectraDaddy September 09, 2012 at 09:04 AM
My kids started kindergarten a few weeks ago. One of them is very social and outgoing so I'm not too worried about him making friends. My other one is shy - not as much as me, though - but I still worry about whether or not he'll make friends. It's difficult to tell whether he has started making friends because, even in kindergarten, he's very vague when describing his day at school. I'm anxious to speak with his teacher at our first parent-teacher conference scheduled for this month to determine how he's doing in this aspect. While some teachers may disagree with me, I think part of a kindergarten teacher's job is assessing a student's social abilities/skills and alerting parents to potential problems that might be keeping/affecting a child from making friends.
Kirsten Branch September 09, 2012 at 07:44 PM
I understand that worry. My oldest is more of an introvert, and isn't the most forthcoming with details. What works for us is creating opportunities for him to share by doing something with him he enjoys (and doesn't feel pressured by), such as drawing or building with Legos, or taking him out for a one on one "date" after school. I'm finding he shares more "naturally" that way with me, rather than when I directly ask. Also, prayer is a part of our family's daily life, and I find that information comes out when I'm praying with him. A few books have been really helpful to help talk/coach about the skills that may be harder for him with his temperament. For great social skills books, I recommend the series by author, Cheri J. Meiners, particularly "Join in and Play." Mo Willems has a book in his Elephant & Piggie series called "Can I Play Too?" that really engages my son's funny bone and sends some good messages about including others with differences. Teachers absolutely should be your partner in assessing challenges and working w/you to find ways that you can each support your child through them. Volunteering in the classroom/school is also a great way to get to see what is going on first hand. My husband also wisely advised me to give it a little time. Ultimately, I'm taking my cues from my son. I'm watching to see if he is expressing he is happy to go to school, or watching for any changes in his behavior that would not be "like him," that kind of thing. Hang in there!

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