Social skills and having friends not only make our children feel good, but are also important for school success. It’s easy to imagine that having friends just happens naturally, and for some kids it does, but most kids can use a little help and guidance around how to make friends, share with them, and cooperate. Today we’ll start with some simple ways you can help your little one begin to initiate making friends.
A great way to do this is to start a conversation with your child about how great it is to have friends, and how having friends makes us feel good. You can tell your child that friends are kids who say nice things to us, play with us, and care about us. Depending on what is most relevant or helpful for your child, continue this conversation by focusing on one or more of the topics below, as well as modeling or practicing the skills.
- Smile and say “Hi, my name is ___, what’s yours? Try asking your child if they know how to make a new friend. You can suggest things like, “I know one way to make a new friend is to smile and say “hi”. Are there any kids at school you want to make friends with? You could go up to them at recess and say “Hi, my name is Analise, what’s your name?” If your child doesn’t already have someone in mind to make friends with, you could start by helping her identify kids who seem like they might be friendly the next time you’re at the park or playground. Some identifiers could be kids who are smiling or who look friendly, are playing a game your child wants to play, or are playing alone or with just one other child.
- Asking to play. Another way to make friends is to ask to join a game, or ask a new friend to come play with you. While playing tag with your child at the park, you could help him to practice his friendship skills by asking if he sees any kids around who might want to play with him. Suggest, “You could walk over and say, “Hi, my name is Ben, do you want to play tag with me? That would be a really friendly thing to say.” Or if he sees a kid, or a group of kids, playing a game he wants to join, he could ask them, “Can I play?”
Another great way to plant the friendship seed is to chat with your child about whether they’ve noticed anyone who doesn’t seem to have anyone to play with at recess. You could ask your child, “How does it feel when friends ask you to play? It makes you feel good, right? I bet it would make that kid feel friendly if you ask him to play with you too.”
A note on what to do when kids don’t want to play
An important part of trying to make friends is to be ok if other kids say ‘no’ when you ask. Talk to your child about how sometimes kids don’t want to play right then, and that’s ok, too. Sometimes kids just want to play alone. It’s great when parents can make this seem normal and not something to get upset about. Parents can also help their child problem solve what to do: “When a friend says no, is that ok? Of course it’s ok; maybe they just want to play later. What could you do when that happens? Could you ask someone else to play instead, or go find something else to do?”
- Compliments. Giving compliments is a wonderful way to make friends, and can become a lifelong skill. Even young kids can grasp the concept of giving compliments and saying nice things to our friends with a little practice and modeling. You can help your child understand compliments as “…saying kind things about others that make them feel happy and good”. Compliments can be about something that someone does, or about how they make you feel, or about what they look like. Give some examples and model: “If I said I thought your drawing was really good, would that make you feel happy? It would! That would be a compliment. If I said, Jay, your smile is so bright and happy it makes me smile and feel happy too, that would also be a compliment. Can you think of something nice you could say to your brother? That’s right, you could tell him you like his green shirt! That’s a very nice compliment. Yes, you could also tell him that you like it when he shares his toys with you; that would also be a compliment. You’re really good at giving compliments!”
- Asking friends questions about themselves. This is a more sophisticated friendship skill and might be difficult for younger children. However, discussing these skills with our children and helping them practice will start the ball rolling. Talk with your children about how asking other kids questions is a good way to get to know them and make friends. One way to do this is to ask about things they might have in common, like siblings, sports, or favorite colors, games, or food: “If you see another kid wearing your favorite color you could ask them what their favorite color is, something like: I like your sweatshirt. Blue is my favorite color. What’s yours? Asking other kids questions about themselves is a great way to make friends and show you care about them.”
Making friends and being friendly are crucial skills for children to succeed and be happy in school and life. Adults can do a lot to foster and develop good social skills in children. Engage them in discussions, give them the language and phrasing if they’re stuck, practice with them, prompt them to try their new skills, and especially: recognize and encourage the small steps toward friendship along the way (this makes them more likely to feel confident to keep trying and not be discouraged when they get that “no”!).
And don’t forget! Be the role-model your children can learn from; be friendly and model your own positive social skills in interactions with friends and other adults.