Q. The vast majority of discussion on children naturally concerns the parent-child relationship. But the whole area of sociability with other children is such a huge part of their early development, and potentially affects how they interact with others in later life. I have three children aged four to seven, and my question is around how important it is for me as a parent to help them learn to make friends? Some children are naturally gifted at engaging while others struggle.
Also, my children seem to have a natural inclination to form one or two “best friends”. It seems to me that they should be taught to think of being more inclusive from an early stage. The other side of the equation concerns someone else’s child being too aggressive or rough, in the playground for example. What is the right balance between trying to let your children deal with the other child themselves, and you as a parent stepping in?
A. Though maybe less discussed in the media, being able to make friends is a very important part of childhood, especially when children start primary school. In fact, forming friendships is key to children’s self-esteem and it is mainly through early friendships that children learn how to get on with people and the important social skills crucial to intimate relationships when they grow up. Studies have shown that children who are able to form close friendships in childhood are more likely to succeed in school later and less likely to be lonely as young adults.
While forming friendships can appear to be a natural process, for many children it is far from easy. It is important for parents to be aware of and to support their child’s friendships. As a parent you can have a key role in helping your child learn the skills of making and maintaining friendships. Simple things like facilitating “play dates” to allow your child one-to-one time with a potential friend, or supporting your child in attending social activities they enjoy where they might meet friends, or listening carefully to their friendship dilemmas, can all make a difference.
You ask whether it is a good idea for your children to have one or two “best friends” or whether it is better for them to be more inclusive and have a broader range of friends. The answer is that children need both. The ideal is that they can learn to have close one-to-one friendships, where they learn key values like intimacy and loyalty, and also how to be part of bigger groups, where they learn general social skills and how to get on with people who have different interests.
This means that you should expose your child to different opportunities of sometimes being one to one with friends and also being part of a larger group. Of course, rules should be insisted upon with friendships, and they should not be used to exclude people. For example, if your child has two cousins visiting in a social situation, it is not okay to just play with one child and exclude the other – this is not the time for one-to-one play. In these situations, you should intervene (or ideally prepare your child in advance about the rule), and say something such as, “When Tim and Alice are here we all play together”, and then insist on socially-inclusive games.
While it is important that parents support their children in making friends and in dealing with other children, it is a delicate matter of whether and how much to intervene in a dispute. Ideally, the parents’ role is one of being supportive in the background, though being quite aware of your child and what is going on. For example, if a dispute breaks out in a playground and you feel another child is being too aggressive, it can be a good idea to first wait and see if your child can manage the situation by himself. If he does then your role can simply be to praise and encourage later what he did well. For example, “It was good the way you told the boy to stop”, or “Well done for walking away”. If you do need to intervene, it can be best to try to help the two children sort out the dispute, saying something such as, “Come on lads, we need to play nicely on the swings”, or “Let’s see you take turns”. If this is not appropriate, for example with a stranger’s child that you do not know, it can be best to direct your child somewhere else to play. Then you can talk through the situation with your child and how to handle it.
Often it is useful to prepare your children for challenging social situations by discussing these in advance with them, for example, “What would you do if another boy took your toy/pushed you in the playground?” In this way, you can help them think through the issues and to come up with good responses.
Being a support to your child in this important subject can make a great difference. If you need more information, there is a chapter on supporting children’s friendships in my book Positive Parenting.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times, September 2010. John writes in the Irish Times Health Plus every Tuesday.