Learning social skills is one of the most difficult developmental tasks a child faces — and one of the most critical for future success in life. The importance of friendships solidifies during the school years, when kids start to move outside the home and family and peer relationships really take hold. While the skills of friendship come naturally as children mature, parents can and should take steps to help the process along.
Some children naturally attract friends, but others have to work harder at it. Children who are active, warm up easily in new situations and are not particularly sensitive develop friendships most easily. But even they need support and guidance from parents. Whether your child has lots of friends or only a few, make sure you:
Open your home to his friends, particularly friends you approve of.
Encourage your child to join a group (just be sure it's one that you support).
Don't embarrass or ridicule him in front of peers. It serves no constructive purpose and will only alienate him from you.
Avoid labeling him as shy, mean or friendless. Labels only reinforce the behavior and image you don't want and prevent your child from changing.
Allow a reasonable amount of telephone time, since it's often easier for kids to talk on the phone than in person.
Don't saddle your child with too many responsibilities and schedules. Make sure he has time for friendships to develop.
Allow him to buy that pair of jeans everyone is wearing. He needs to feel like he can fit in with his peers.
Peer problems strike most children from time to time. When this happens, you need to listen to your child's feelings, and then, when his tears subside, offer small bits of advice. Accepting and understanding his emotions will provide your child with the strength to face those same kids tomorrow. Rejection from friends and rejection at home are too much for any child to bear.
When to butt in . . . and stay out. All parents dread the notion of peer pressure. Your job is to help your child during the school years to get involved with positive groups, whether it's sports, Scouts, student government or a hobby, interest or activity group.
Generally speaking, the less you get involved, the more your child will learn about peer relations. Sometimes the solutions kids come up with aren't the ones mature adults would pick. But they eventually figure out what is fair and how to get along.
One friend can make the difference. Many parents worry that their children don't have enough friends, but the only time to really be concerned is when they have no friends.
You might also help your child find a playmate who's a year older or younger. Children of slightly different ages often accommodate each other better in play.
Jan Faull, of Renton, Wash., is a child-development and behavior specialist and the author of "Unplugging Power Struggles."