Teach your child how to make and keep friends, for now and the future

In his well-known essay, “Everything I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” Robert Fulghum outlines some good life lessons children should learn early in life, such as, “Play fair,” “Don’t take things that aren’t yours,” and “Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.”
 
Childhood friendships are our earliest opportunities, outside of the family, to practice building relationships. Just as early play with numbers, like counting and ordering, is at the root of later math mastery, friendships provide foundational skills for personal and professional relationships in adulthood.            
 
Cooperation, communication, and emotional expression and regulation are interpersonal skills learned, practiced and fine-tuned as we grow. In addition, having friends has been linked to overall health and better school performance.
 
You probably know you can’t choose your child’s friends – and you may not like all of them – but there are things you can do to make sure your child has the opportunity to get some social exercise.
 
Parenting style
Psychologist Diana Baumrind first found that a connection exists between parenting and social competence in preschool and school-age children. In her work, she, recognizes three parenting styles: authoritarian, characterized as low in nurturance and high in control; permissive, tending to be moderate-to-high in nurturance and low in control; and, authoritative, with moderate-to-high nurturance and moderate control.
 
The last category, authoritative parenting, has been found again and again to foster social development. Higher levels of nurturance lead to more positive interactions between parent and child, which lead to more time together, motivation to please and stronger identity with the family.
 
The balance of reasonable control facilitates an understanding and acceptance of expected behavior, rules and consequences. When children behave in inappropriate or unacceptable ways, we consider all sides and use reasonable consequences rather than punitive measures. A focus on positive behavior and values increases trust and communication, and has the most lasting impact on child development.
 
Make friends a priority
Now that you know how important it is, be sure to give your child the time and tools to make and develop close friendships. Schedule down time with friends. Children may meet at school, in clubs and on teams, but they get to know each other through unstructured time together – “play dates,” games, building, pretending, and “hanging out.” Help your child develop skills and interests to share by finding things he enjoys and engaging him in play. These may include sports, board games, creative activities or imaginative play. It’s easier to play with others when you have some practice.
 
Model appropriate behavior
Very young children need help taking turns and playing together. By 6 or 7, they are better able to see another person’s point of view and learn about compromise by taking time to consider and problem solve. When a disagreement occurs, stop to discuss the way everyone might be feeling and why. Then help your child manage tough feelings like anger, blame and jealousy, so she can learn to manage them in herself and accept them in others.
 
Talk and listen. Communication is critical to developing good relationships. Listen to your child’s thoughts and feelings without interruption or correction. Then share your thoughts and values.
 
Avoid playing referee
Your child will not be perfect, and neither will his friends. Young children grab toys and hit, older children argue and even exclude or tease. Recognize that it’s all part of the process. It will be more helpful to give them the tools to work through their problems than to figure out who is right and who is wrong. Remember that, when people feel safe, they learn from successes and mistakes.
 
 
Jenni Watts Evans is a parent educator and assistant director at the Parenting Center at Children’s Hospital. For more information and to learn about the parenting groups and classes available, call 504.896.9591, visit theparentingcenter.net or email [email protected].

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