Beyond bribing our children's peers with candy or passes to the skate rink in an attempt to get other children to play with ours, can we really help our children make friends? Yes, by providing opportunities and gentle coaching rather than heavy handed intervention. Pushing our children in any area, especially to be more gregarious, isn't likely to work.
Here are some ideas that may help:
Give the child lots of opportunities to play with peers.
Arrange play dates for preschool and school age children. If your preschooler is not in child care, enroll him or her in a preschool or a playgroup that meets regularly. Go to the park or other places where your child will have a chance to meet peers under your supervision. There is no substitute for the experience children gain from interacting with peers. Children who have had many opportunities to play with peers from an early age are clearly at an advantage when they enter formal group settings such as child care or elementary school.
Play teaches children about partnership, teamwork, and fair play. It is through play that a child's primitive understanding about "rules" is reinforced because most games and social situations have rules. While our home environments may be more forgiving and tolerant about bending the game rules, it is quickly apparent to children that their peers aren't always as tolerant and forgiving.
Michele Borba, EdD, summarizes the importance of social skills by saying; "Friends play an enormous part in the development of children's self-esteem. If we want our children to become their personal best, it's essential to improve their ability to get along well with others."
Play with your child like a peer.
Get on the floor and build with blocks or act out imaginary roles. For school age children, play an outdoor activity like basketball or soccer or grab a board game for fun inside. You will learn a lot about how your child plays when you play with him. Observational studies indicate that the parents of the most socially competent children laugh and smile often, avoid criticizing their child during play, are responsive to the child's ideas, and aren't too directive.
Talk to your child about their friends.
Ask your child about what happened in preschool or school. "Whom did you play with today?" "Why do you like playing with that friend?" Have your child tell you about interactions that upset him. "How did you feel when he took your shovel at the park?" "Why do you think he did that?" "What could you do next time to play together?" Or if it was your child who took the shovel, ask the same questions, but talk about other ways to express his feelings and wants.
Make your conversations opportunities to solve problems together.
Remember, these are conversations and not lectures. It makes sense that we want our children to learn from what we say, but sometimes we need to just listen to how they feel and then develop coping strategies together.
Try not to interfere in your child’s play situations.
Unless your child or the other children are in danger of getting hurt or the situation has escalated beyond their ability to work out the issues, let your child work out her own social challenges. Children can benefit from learning to compromise on their own in a safe, supervised setting.
Despite our best efforts to teach them, our children may still need help taking turns or accepting the ideas of others. As eager as we may be for them to succeed, here are some things to avoid when coaching our children about social situations.
Richard Lavoie, author of Teacher's Guide: Last One Picked...First One Picked On, suggests that parents DON'T:
Discourage their child from establishing relationships with children who are a year or two younger. Although the children are different ages, they may be at a similar developmental level. By befriending younger children, your child may enjoy a degree of status and acceptance that he does not experience among his peers.
Force their child to participate in large groups if he is not willing or able.
Put their child in highly charged competitive situations to necessitate peer interaction. Competitive sports or other activities are often a source of great anxiety and failure for children trying to make friends. Parents should focus on participation, enjoyment, contribution, and satisfaction in competitive activities.
Judge or punish their child when he tells them about social confrontations or difficulties that he has experienced. Parents should thank him for sharing the experience and then discuss optional strategies that he could use.
Children Who Need More Help
Some of us are born needing more help in forming friendships. Shyness, empathy, and the ability to read social cues are traits heavily influenced by our genes, and some children need help. Some children are very shy and need more arranged opportunities and gentle encouragement. Some children have less empathy and have trouble understanding the feeling or behavior of others. They may not recognize social cues or have insight into their own behavior that turns off other children and need our help.
Conversations about real life help. There are children’s books available that can help children gain insight. Here are 2 books:
Making Friends: A Mister Rogers' First Experience Book, written by Fred Rogers
How Kids Make Friends: Secrets for Making Lots of Friends, No Matter How Shy You Are, written by Lonnie Michelle
We want everything to go well for our children and we can do much to ensure it. But as they get older and enter the social world, there is only so much we can do: provide them with low pressure social opportunities, role model good friendship behavior, share feelings, and try to keep a good perspective on a very long and winding human road.