Why It’s Important to Help Children Make Friends

By Rita Brhel, managing editor and attachment parenting resource leader (API)

My four-year-old is exceptionally smart but has a tough time with social relationships due to developmental delays spurring from prematurity. In fact, she’s in a special school program designed to teach her social skills such as initiating interaction and maintaining conversation with peers. Some progress has been made, with much more to be done before she goes to Kindergarten.

Some people don’t understand why I put such emphasis on her social development, especially since academically she is well above her peers. But I remember having a tough time in school because of my lack of social skills, and I want my children to avoid that by learning all they can when they’re young. The ability to make and keep friendships is a life skill that will go on to determine part of their adult happiness.

Research (Hartup, 1990) shows that friendship serve many purposes, including:

  • Emotional skills for having fun and adapting to stress.
  • Cognitive skills for problem-solving and acquiring new knowledge.
  • Social skills for communication, cooperation, and group entry.
  • A precursor to future relationships.

Borrowed from the Appelbaum Training Institute, there are four steps to helping children become comfortable at developing friendships:

  1. Ask the child to smile at other children.
  2. Teach the child to welcome other children by saying “hi,” “hello,” hugging, or giving a high five or another appropriate greeting.
  3. Teach the child to make a polite comment to other children, such as “I like your shirt.”
  4. Teach the child to ask polite questions of other children, such as “How are you?”

Once step #4 has been mastered, the child’s interactions with others tend to develop positively. Children who still need help anywhere in this process may benefit from having play dates with other children, going to preschool, or other situations where they encounter other children. With my four-year-old, I began by taking her to Sunday School every week and then enrolled her in a preschool program. While she still needs assistance with social relationships, she has greatly improved already — and the reason is because of the increased exposure to social contexts.

Social development is largely an individual measurement, but you can determine if your toddler or preschoolers is on the right track if your child:

  • Is usually in a good mood.
  • Is not overly dependent on an adult.
  • Usually manages slights and setbacks properly.
  • Demonstrates ability to establish rapport.
  • Has positive relationships with one or two companions, shows ability to truly care for them, and misses them when absent.
  • Displays a sense of humor.
  • Has no severe or constant complaint of feeling alone.
  • Approaches others in a positive way.
  • Expresses needs appropriately.
  • Expresses anger and frustration effectively, without harming others or property.
  • Takes turns easily.
  • Shows concern for others, shares, and accepts information from others properly.
  • Does not display inappropriate attention-seeking behavior.
  • Accepts and enjoys peers, adults, and ethnic groups other than their own.
  • Can gain access to play and work groups that occur in the preschool classroom or play dates.
  • Interacts nonverbally with other children with smiles, greetings, and statements.
  • Usually accepted and not ignored or rejected by other children.
  • Sometimes invited by other children to enjoy the game, friendship, and work.

4 thoughts on “Why It’s Important to Help Children Make Friends”

  1. While I truly believe that the motivation here is well-meaning, I could not help but feel that this was more about what the parent wanted rather than what the child wanted, or was even perhaps ready for.

    Ms. Birhel writes “…I remember having a tough time in school because of my lack of social skills…I want my children to avoid that by learning all they can while they are young.” To me, a great part of attachment parenting is honouring the child’s needs, which often means seeing past our own history and our own wants and needs for our child. Is it important to help children make friends, as Ms. Birhel suggests? Perhaps it is. But, that “help” should be on the child’s own terms, not the parent’s. Her assessment that while her child has made “some progress” in her social skills, “with much more to be done before she goes to Kindergarten” sounds like she is pushing her child’s development to fit into an externally defined schedule, rather than respecting and more importantly, trusting, her child’s own rate of growth and social development.

    This is not meant in any way as a criticism of Ms. Birhel’s parenting – far from it! She is clearly trying to do what she feels is best for her daughter and help her avoid something that obviously caused her some pain as a child, the memory of which she still carries as an adult. I just think that, particularly when we as parents are dealing with an issue that carries a history of some pain or difficulty, we need to give some close examination to our decisions – are they about us, or about our child? We have all been there at one time or another, that is for certain. We shouldn’t let our own needs and wants obscure the very different and personal needs of and wants of our child.

  2. This is not ment to critique. I think your doing a fine job taking your daughter to Sunday school and teaching her social skills. I don’t care for the list of when your child is doing fine though. It’s a lot to ask of a toddler and maybe even of a preschooler.
    Remembering myself having problems with social skills in day care, kindergarten, school, high school, iuniversity and even sometimes in my adult life. Looking back, I find the thing that has seriously hampered my social development is the clear judgment of adult (parents and teachers) about my lack of social skills. Comments like: you should be more social, you should play with children of your own age, not with children of a lower group. By the time I was 8, I understood completely that I was ‘different’ ‘lacking social skills’ ‘not belonging’ etc etc.
    It held me back from developing social skills when I could have.
    The approach I take is to teach my child those skills in everyday life. Greeting people, sharing toys at the playground etc etc. I also accept her for who she is.
    Love and accept your child the way she is so she can grow at her own pace.

  3. It seems that there are assumptions being made and conclusions being jumped to. Where does “apprenticemom” get off assuming that it’s too much for Rita to encourage her daughter (with delays) to communicate, cooperate, problem-solve, adapt, connect with other kids, say hi, share, accept sharing from other toddlers, or make polite comments? Sounds like “play” to me. I think the baby can handle it. Why sell the baby short?

    And where is your compassion AP? Is it fair to conclude that because Rita had unmet needs as a child, she will lack sensitivity as she interacts with her toddler? When it comes to sensitivity, I think the AP gang could better practice what they preach. Come on.

    As seen above, any time a sentence begins with: “I don’t want to be critical but…” look out! Brace yourself for criticism.

    Any criticism needs to be balanced by five times as much praise. Is there some kind of hidden agenda on the part of AP.

    I was starting to like the principles being taught at AP. Somewhere along the line, the AP lost the spirit. What happened?

  4. As a child and a teenager, I was constantly ostracized and/or made fun of by other kids due to being “different” , and I was never given any real coaching on how to develop the necessary social skills, even though I did have a good friend during elementary, Junior and Sr. High Schools. Yet I wanted still more. I wanted what I could not and did not have…a better social life that included boys as well as girls.

    My family constantly stressed that my academic work was more important, but I secretly never bought that. I never really gave a s**t about academics, so I did just enough work to keep me afloat (C average) so that I wouldn’t end up in the class of kids above mine.

    So, living in the regular world, rather than entering into a setting or settings for people that’re specifically geared for people with developmental problems is what I’ve chosen to do. Getting involved in the burning hot causes of the day(s), including today, have never, ever been my cup of tea, and I’ve resigned myself to not having much of a social life, although I have compensated for that by developing interests, some of which put me in contact with “regular” people, and others that’re more solitary.

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