Making friends is an important social skill for children in the six- to twelve-year-old age group to develop as they try to fit comfortably into their environment and into the general society. At about six, children begin forming more complex relationships. They've learned to be more cooperative and less aggressive in their play, and they're better able to put their ideas and feelings into words. At the same time, they're ready to start looking for more support and companionship outside of the family.
It's also at the age of six that differences between the sexes become more apparent. Boys want to play mostly with boys, and girls with girls. There's also a difference in the styles of friendship. Girls tend to have closer, longer-lasting relationships with a few other girls. As they grow older, they're more likely to exclude others from their circle of friends. Boys may have intense friendships with one or two other boys but also have a wider circle that changes and shifts rapidly.
How friendships form
Children are drawn to each other for reasons they may be unaware of. A child's friends tend to share characteristics that the child has or admires. They also tend to have similar temperaments and styles of play. Children who prefer active games are more likely to stick together, while common interests such as music or hobbies can lead other children to a close bond. That need for similarity explains why childhood friendships are sometimes intense but short-lived.
What kids need or want in friendship is complex, says Linda Rose-Kintner of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and sometimes opposites attract. As the child grows and his needs and interests change, so may his friendships. Although the children don't realize it, their parents also play a role. Dr. Rose-Kintner's studies show that children tend to hang out with others who share their parents' core values. But what's important is the strength of the relationship their parents form with them, which gives them the ability to form other lasting relationships.
You can help foster friendships by providing a welcoming home for your child's friends. Let your children know it's alright to bring their pals over. Resist the temptation to complain about their music, and don't intrude too much on their games. Have snack food on hand. Welcoming kids to your home has a couple of advantages: It gives you a chance to get to know your children's friends and their parents. That's important to give you early warning of potentially troublesome relationships. If your children feel comfortable bringing their friends home when they're young, the foundation will be laid for the teen years. Although they'll want more independence then, they'll still feel comfortable hanging out at home with their friends.
While friendships may change often, it's also common for a child to have a best friend. These two usually share the same interests and the same view of the world, and they rely on each other for approval and companionship. They are truly kindred spirits, as Anne of Green Gables says. Don't worry that by spending time with one best friend your child is missing out on relationships with other kids. Most experts agree that a special close friendship is good for kids, as long as the two have a basically positive influence on each other.
Children tend to hang out with others their own age, but sometimes they can form a close bond with a child who is several years older or younger. The age discrepancy may cause some parents to feel uncomfortable, but it's not necessarily anything to worry about. In today's smaller families, few children get to know children of different ages as they did in the larger families of the past, so the relationship may be beneficial. However, it's important to monitor it to be sure that the older child doesn't take advantage of the younger one. If your child is the older one in the relationship, encourage her to continue her relationship with others closer to her own age, and ensure that she isn't escaping from problems with her peers. If the friendship between children of different ages is a smooth and constructive one, don't worry about it.
Sometimes parents are dismayed to find their child has become friends with a kid who bullies other children, misbehaves at home, or gets into trouble at school. Nobody wants his child to have such a negative relationship, but what's the best way to handle it? First, take a look at your own family situation; children usually look for others who are like them and who share their values, or others whom they admire. Ask yourself if there's anything in your family's situation that might affect your child's choice.
Although you want to discourage your child's harmful friendship, don't waste time criticizing the friend or forbidding them to get together. Criticism may make your child feel the need to rise to his defence, or the two may find ways to continue the banned relationship anyway. Concentrate instead on your own child's behaviour when he's with his friend. If you don't see a change, you may not have anything to worry about. In one Swedish study, researchers paired delinquent kids with very positive children and had them spend time together. They found that neither group had much effect on the behaviour of the other. However, if your child's behaviour is changing for the worse, take action. Tell him you're unhappy about it. Remind him of the limits and expectations you have for him in your household. Tell him if you're worried about what might happen to him if he acts like his friend, and make sure he understands where the behaviour could lead. Make it a logical argument, not an emotional one, and avoid attacking the friend. That will forestall your child's impulse to jump to his friend's defence.
At the same time, do whatever you can to encourage more desirable friendships. Help arrange activities with other children, and encourage your child to invite them to your house. The damaging friendship will likely sputter and die on its own. You are the major influence on the friends your child chooses, but as she grows older, she is less influenced by her parents' opinions. You still need to be aware of who she's spending time with and what they're doing. Meet the friend's parents if possible. Their values and attitudes could be an early warning of trouble.
When your child doesn't have friends
It's heartbreaking for parents to see their child left out of activities or ignored by others. It's also hard on the child who is left feeling lonely, inadequate, and full of self-doubt. There are many reasons why a child might have no friends.
Create opportunities for your child to make friends, and create a welcoming climate for her friends in your home. Get your child involved in organized activities that both pique her curiosity and provide opportunities to meet others with similar interests. Contact parents of other children in her class or on your street to arrange after-school play or weekend outings.
Find an opportunity to watch your child interact with others. Perhaps you could volunteer to help out on a school trip. If you spot relationship problems that are causing trouble, discuss them at home. Ask your child how he feels about a particular behaviour that you've seen. Get him to think about what he wants from a relationship and how he expects to bring that about. If his behaviour is causing him problems, ask how he might have behaved differently. Also ask your child's teacher how your child interacts with others and where the problems lie, if there are any. Teachers are often the first to spot trouble.
Develop a few simple strategies that your child could use to overcome her problem. Give her suggestions about how to initiate conversations or to deal with her shyness. Help her practise the skills at home first, if she's willing. Young children are still learning about social interaction, and what's obvious to you is quite new to them. Be involved, but don't intrude. It's natural to want to fix the problem yourself, but your child will be resentful and embarrassed if you push too hard or complain about the situation in front of her peers. And if you take care of everything, she won't learn how to deal with social situations herself.
Excerpted from Raising Great Kids: Ages 6 to 12 by Christine Langlois. Copyright 1999 by Telemedia Communications Inc. Excerpted, with permission by Ballantine Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.