The Art and Science of Making Friends

10 Tips for Parents Teaching Children

A friend of mine once attended a wedding reception with her eight-year-old daughter, Jessica. The room was filled with grown-ups, so when my friend saw a young girl across the room, she suggested that Jessica run over and talk to her. Jessica reacted with scorn. “Mom, how would you like it if I said, ‘Look, there’s another 35-year-old woman—go make friends with her!’”

I have to say, Jessica had a point! As parents, we tend to assume that once our kids have reached the stage where they can “play well with others,” making friends will be an automatic process. But did you know that there’s an entire science behind the emotional intelligence skills needed to make and keep friendships? And as with learning any skill, children need guidance, encouragement, and plenty of practice if they’re going to learn how to make friends.

Who better to offer that support than parents—after all, a child’s greatest influences start right at home. In fact, a long-term study from the University of Minnesota showed that children who felt secure and attached to parents or loved ones by the age of 12 months were more likely to have healthy relationships with peers when they were in elementary school; this in turn predicted the strength of their friendships at age 16! A child who has learned to trust others and get along with people will be less controlling, more responsive, and happier, and is better able to get along with others—needless to say, these are all qualities that make for an outstanding friend.

So what can parents do to help their children learn to make friends? Oh, just ensure that they’re empathetic and willing to help others; that they can make conversation and, better yet, listen; that they can share and take turns; that they know how to cooperate and resolve conflicts; and that they demonstrate good manners and self control—in other words, not much! In all seriousness, I know that list sounds daunting. But when you initiate some simple, practical steps, you’ll be surprised how readily children can adopt these skills.

Try these 10 activities, which can help your child develop emotional intelligence and learn to make and keep friendships throughout their lives:

1. Like, meet like: Begin by planning playdates for your young child with children of similar temperaments. They’re more likely to agree on what’s “fun,” and to play cooperatively. Put the one-player-only toys away during the playdate to make it more amicable. (I also discourage video games on playdates, as they tend to squelch communication.)

2. Suggest non-competitive activities: Going to the park, riding bikes, playing hide-and-seek—these are all cooperative pastimes that take the emphasis off “winning” and place it squarely on “playing.” In a group playdate, you can have the kids start with an icebreaker, such as a game of “That’s Me!”: One child names their favorite food/TV show/book/candy/toy, and if any other child has the same favorite, they stand up and shout “That’s me!”

3. Watch who your child is playing with: If your child is palling around with a bully or a child who is constantly getting into trouble, take your child out of that situation and encourage friendships with others.

4. Practice active listening: Do some role-playing in which you take turns speaking and listening. Demonstrate how to really listen by making eye contact with the speaker and turning your body in her direction. This may be eye-opening for your child when they see how it feels to receive a listener’s complete attention!

5. Encourage talk about emotions: After school or at the dinner table, take turns talking about how everyone is feeling, and what situations during the day led to those feelings. Discuss any social conflicts that you and your child experienced, and how you dealt with them. Be sure that everyone gets a chance to speak and a chance to be heard, so that your child understands what others are feeling, and why.

6. Read the signs: Continue teaching your child empathy by helping her recognize emotions in others. While looking at magazines, reading books, or watching TV, have her analyze how a character is feeling based on their facial expressions or body language.

7. Practice the grand entrance: Is your child hesitant to initiate contact with others? Use role play again to demonstrate how he can join a group—for instance, if kids on the playground are playing a ball game, he can pick up the ball when it goes out of bounds and toss it back in. If she sees a child sitting alone, show her how to go over and introduce herself. Encourage your child to share likes and dislikes, and to practice asking questions of others to solicit their participation: “I like chocolate ice cream—what’s your favorite flavor?”

8. Teach problem solving: When a conflict arises between children, try to let the kids work things out on their own (unless things are escalating or someone’s about to get hurt). Have them remember the watch words: take turns, share, listen to each other, think about how the other is feeling.

9. Practice good manners: “Please” and “Thank you” are to human relationships what gasoline is to a car—they make things run properly. Even between children, good manners can go a long way toward building strong friendships.

10. Practice those random acts of kindness: The greatest gift we can give our children is teaching them empathy. Looking out for others by doing unexpected nice things for someone is a wonderful way to become a kinder, more empathetic person—and a better friend.

Read All About It!

Friendship is a key theme in children’s literature, for obvious reasons. Share some of these books with children to explore the theme of friendship in sweet and funny ways: