When 7-year-old John* didn't attend his neighborhood school in Federal Way, it was difficult for him to meet children who lived nearby. His mother realized he needed to connect with friends outside of school hours, so she began scheduling regular play dates with some of his school pals.
"Parents should encourage kids to engage," says Mary Finney-Allen, a counselor at Sunnycrest Elementary in Federal Way. "For safety reasons, we no longer send kids to a neighbor's house unannounced and without knowing the parents. Those days are gone, and they should be."
"The skills children need (later on) begin early in life," says Danielle Kassow, Ph.D., research associate at the Seattle-based Talaris Research Institute, which translates scientific studies on early childhood into tools parents can use. "Their first relationship with their primary caregiver, the parent, is very important."
Children who learn to trust their parents and to rely on them, develop an attachment to them. "Attachment is very important and when babies have it they are predisposed to having positive peer relationships later in life," Kassow says.
Finney-Allen notes that humans are social animals and even the least social people need friends, or they will fall into a void. Friends "enrich, enliven, help us to grow, challenge us and make it safe for us to try new things," she says
"Children who have successful interactions with friends enjoy school more, are less likely to drop out, and they don't feel lonely, depressed or socially anxious," Kassow adds. "It's a precursor for adjustment later in life."
Join a group
By participating in activities like sports, Camp Fire, Boy Scouts, church groups and the YMCA, your child is more likely to find friends who are already a match because both your child and the friend are interested in the same activity. Another positive: Parents of friends in the same activities will have an opportunity to meet the other friend's parents.
Ask the teacher
Finney-Allen suggests asking your child's teacher who might be a good match as a friend for your child. If your child is a little shy, pair him with someone who is more outgoing and will take your child under his or her wing. "Let your child be around you, the adult, when you're with your friends," Kassow says. "This models good behavior so the child learns how to communicate and how to take turns in a conversation."
Plan a play date
Once you have found a good friend match for your chlid, you'll still have a little work to do. Finney-Allen suggests helping children organize their time and giving them ideas for what to do. Would they like to watch a movie together and have popcorn, or would they prefer to do an art project? But that doesn't mean you have to watch them every minute. Give them the materials they need and then let them alone to interact. If you sense a change in the mood of the play, offer up another activity.
Let them practice
Children need time every day that's not scheduled so they can either play with friends or just go outside. Kids who are overscheduled don't have any downtime to develop friendships and practice their social skills.
Younger children have more durable friendships. As they get older, issues may arise. "The gift a parent can give is to help their child work through friendship issues instead of responding to them," Finney-Allen says. "Empower your child to make choices."
Books about friendship recommended by Common Sense Media:
Preschoolers: (ages 2–4)
Kids (ages 5–9)
Tweens and teens (ages 10–13)
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2009 and updated in October 2019. *Not his real name.