Parents Can Help Teach Children to Be Good Friends
When my children were preschoolers, a poster with two owls snuggled on a swing set hung on our playroom wall. It read: To have a friend, you must be a friend.
Every now and then we talked about that saying. When I saw one of my twins leaving the other out in a game or watched them ignore their little brother, I would remind them of the owl poster. “Are you being a good friend?” I would ask. “If you want your brother to be nice to you, you have to be nice to him.”
It’s such a simple thing. But not so simple for kids and, let’s be honest, not always so simple for adults. It takes practice to learn how to be a good friend. Unfortunately, that often means getting your feelings hurt or feeling the sting of rejection before children start to understand the consequences of social behavior.
Navigating young children’s friendships can be as easy as pointing to a poster or a family rule. But as children grow, so do the complexities of friendships, of choosing good friends and knowing when to back away from unhealthy friendships.
Friendship in the Elementary Years
The elementary school years are ripe with possibility. It’s a time when children go from having pals to having confidantes. They learn who they can trust, who they can laugh with and who they might need to steer clear of to avoid getting in trouble. These can be hard years for making and keeping friends, but it’s important groundwork for the deeper connections of middle school and high school friendships.
We talked to Tulsa mom Shelly Brown and her 9-year-old son, Frank, about elementary school friendships.
“I think the most important thing we can do as parents for our children is talk to them about their friendships and what our kids think it means to be a good friend – and help define what makes a good friend for them,” Shelly said.
For Frank, those good friend qualities are ones he’s found in his longtime friend, Arianna. So, what makes her a good friend?
“She’s very nice and funny and playful and forgiving,” Frank said.
And in return, Frank has been nice and playful and forgiving right back.
But even at 9 years old, Arianna has been more than just someone to play with on the playground. When Frank’s grandfather died, he said, Arianna was there for him.
Highlight Your Child’s Strengths
Shelly said one thing parents can do to help their kids is highlight their strong points so they can know how to use them with their peers.
“Frank is a strong leader. We remind him how important his influence can be with his friends and how he can use this strong point to help include others that may not have an easy time making new friends,” she said.
Recognize That Everyone Has Value
Another lesson she teaches Frank is remembering that part of being a good friend is recognizing each person has something different to bring to the friendship.
See Through Your Child’s Eyes
Shelly said that while Frank hasn’t yet hit any major problems in the friendship realm, she works to see situations through Frank’s eyes, listening to him in open conversation so that he can speak freely, and she can listen.
“It’s important to understand our children’s perspective so we can better provide them with tools to navigate different friendships,” she said.
Talk About Boundaries
Before kids enter the tricky pre-teen and teen years is also a good time to discuss, and perhaps role-play, situations that may arise.
“This is a great time to talk about relationship boundaries,” Shelly said. “Helping children establish a good foundation about healthy boundaries in all types of relationships will be something they can carry throughout their lives.”
Talking to her son about friendships has come naturally to Shelly Brown, but that’s not the case with many parents.
What Parents Can Do
Some parents may see a child’s peer relationships as something they have little control over. But according to the American Psychological Association (APA), parents have a tremendous influence in helping children develop healthy friendships and relationships. That starts with giving them tools to set them up for success.
For parents of preschoolers, that begins with reminders about how to be a good friend through sharing and taking turns. For elementary-aged kids, it’s frequent talks about what kindness looks like. For example, reminding your child to sit by someone who is alone at lunch or to play with a new student at recess.
The APA recognizes the struggle that is middle school, with a finding that most kids will experience bullying by their peers at some point in these years. Children who have developed good friendship skills in elementary school can pull out those tools, remembering to be trustworthy and kind rather than trying too hard to be cool. But not many get out of middle school unscathed. Continuing those preschool and elementary school discussions of how to be a good friend and how to look for a good friend is as critical in these years as when kids are first learning the meaning of friendship as preschoolers.
The beginning of the school year can be a good time to jump-start or refresh talks about being a good friend. Frank’s advice to making friends in the new school year: “You don’t even have to say, ‘Can we be friends?’ You can just start playing.”
How to Help Your Child Be a Good Friend
Talk about it.
A great tip from the PBS Parents app is to help kids draw the connection between their kind or cooperative behavior and friendship. For instance, “I noticed you sat by your friend when she was feeling upset. You are a good friend!” For little children, remind them of the Daniel Tiger song, “Friends help each other. Yes, they do, it’s true.”
But even for older children, reminding them of their goodness and how they can channel it into their friendships will give them the confidence to make friends and maintain friendships.
If you’re an introverted parent, this may sound like a nightmare. “Can’t they just play with their friends at school?” you might be thinking. But playdates allow kids to have fun with parents nearby. Even though you may be talking with another parent, you can still keep an eye on the kids to see how your child gets along with others. Playdates make space for young children to practice being a friend through sharing and taking turns. For older kids, it’s an opportunity to get to know each other better and establish familiarity.
You know your child better than anyone. Watching him struggle to jump in and play with others at a playground or birthday party can be heartbreaking. Talk about it the next time it comes around, reminding him what he can do to interject himself. Role-play with them. For young children, it’s OK to step in, helping a child find a spot at the sandbox or swings. Likewise, talk to extroverted children about looking out for those who are quiet or unsure. Remind them how they can use their big, wonderful personalities to welcome in new friends.