Because 7-year-old Elias Tupou 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,
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."
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
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."
Once you have found a good friend match for your chlid, you'll still have a little work to
do. If your child is old enough to call and invite the friend over or
to go to an activity, walk him or her through the phone call.
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.
Children need time everyday that's not scheduled so they can either
play with friends or just go outside. Kids who are overscheduled don't
have any down time to develop friendships and practice their social
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."
Heather Larson is a freelance writer based in Tacoma who frequently writes about pregnancy and parenting.
Tips for tackling friendship problems
Children need to be treated well by their friends, and they need to
feel valued. If there is a problem between a child and his or her
friend, suggest these options:
- Ignore the problem.
- Talk it out and reach a resolution.
- Walk away and take a break from this friend.
- End the friendship and move on.
- FamilyEducation.com: "Help Your Kids Make Friends"
- BoysTownPediatrics.org: "Parents Can Teach Children How to Make Friends"
- PBS.org: "The Secrets of Your Child's Social Life"
- Good Friends Are Hard to Find: Help Your Child Find, Make, and Keep Friends by Fred Frankel and Barry Wetmore
- How to Be A Friend: A Guide to Making Friends and Keeping Them by Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown
- The Unwritten Rules of Friendship: Simple Strategies to Help Your Child Make Friends by Natalie Elman and Eileen Kennedy-Moore
- Making Friends by Fred Rogers
- Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls by Rachel Simmons
Originally published in the October, 2006 print edition of ParentMap.