The value of having good friends is priceless. As parents, it’s one of our top desires for our children to have strong, positive friendships.
Along with helping them to grow emotionally and socially, friendships do so much more for children, says Niobe Way, an author and psychology professor at New York University. “Research studies clearly have shown that close and mutually supportive friendships enable your child to feel good about him or herself, engage more positively in school, and make better choices in all aspects of his or her life,” Way says.
And, friendships are critical to a child’s health and well-being. “As parents, teachers and professionals, we need to understand that, at the deepest level, friendships help your child thrive in the world,” he continues. “What parent does not want that for his or her child?”
Experts say parents can help foster their child’s friendships at every age and stage. In this busy, digital and material world, one critical piece of advice for parents of preschoolers, big kids and teens: Leave behind computer games and television. Let children play and talk together to build true bonds.
Friendships begin at home. “Positive relationships with parents and siblings build a secure attachment and a strong sense of self-confidence that helps children to make friends once they spend more time out in the world,” says Fran Swift, a parent educator.
Young children constantly watch their parents, she adds. “They’re learning how to relate to others about generosity, sharing, caring and tolerance from observing the way in which their family interacts with each other and to those outside the home.”.
More exposure to other friends begins when children go to preschool and begin to have play dates. By the age of 3, children begin growing out of playing side by side — parallel play — and start interactive play with another. Around age 4, often they choose a friend they enjoy playing with.
Respect your child’s temperament when helping him make friends, Swift says. Some children are slow to warm up into a group, while others immediately join in with others. The reserved child often feels more confident with a planned one-to-one connection at first.
Parents can offer their child suggestions about how to say “hello” to others. Encourage your child to make eye contact when a friend says “hello” to him. It’s fun to role play these scenarios together at home, being careful not to make the child feel too self-conscious, Swift says. Keep it fun.
Be observant about to whom your child is drawn and set up a play date. Young children usually do best together at a park, where they can more actively play together and not on one or the other’s turf.
“Sometimes, it’s difficult for children at this age to share their favorite toys, so playing outside, going up and down slides, collecting leaves, looking for frogs and such joins two children in their common goal,” Swift says. “Even the most reserved child enjoys splashing in water or blowing bubbles with a friend.”
The best result occurs when “pure play” between two friends is happening, Swift says. The sounds of talking, laughing and playing make-believe create bonds between children. Allow time for more imaginative play — house, school, grocery shopping — and less structured activities with friends.
As an educator for 25 years, Melani Fay has observed a decline in the depth of young friendships. “Due to technology, kids are more shallow,” Fay says. “They’re too plugged in. Playing Wii video games is not playing together.”
Studies show that children aren’t as adept at reading facial expressions and body language, Fay says. “There is just too much screen time and technology between us at all ages,” she says. “Have your child go outside with a ball or go for a bike ride with a friend.”
Simple activities give children the space and time to talk about what they’re about, such as their likes and dislikes. This improves the depth of their relationships.
Talk to your children about far-fetched expectations they view on television, Fay advises. Children receive immediate feedback and view a lot of competition on television. Teach them that life isn’t all about winning. Television also has many unrealistic situations about friendships.
“Parents need to role model good relationships for their children, but sometimes they’re too plugged in, too,” Fay says. “Parents need to set limits with technology for themselves and their children.”
Her own family practices the motto, “Love the one you’re with.” That means, when she’s spending time with her two daughters, she asks that none of them text while they’re together.
Social gatherings — neighborhood parties, family reunions and school festivals — offer an opportunity to mix your children up with people of all ages and to teach them about friendships. Eating dinner together also is a critical time to make connections. Have your children’s friends over for dinner on a Friday night after the first couple of weeks of school.
While the technology your teen uses to communicate with friends is here to stay, texting and social networking should not replace face-to-face time with peers, says Way, author of “Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection” (Harvard University Press, March 2011).
Set the tone early on that playing on the computer isn’t the main focus of a friendship. Invite your teenager’s friends to hang out at your house and even better, bring them along on a family trip, says Way, the mother of a son, 11, and daughter, 8.
Sleepovers work great too, as long as all of the time isn’t spent with technology, but rather talking and sharing together. “Your goal as a parent is to help your teen build his or her emotional and social health, so give your teen that space to learn to communicate,” Way says.
Reflecting on a recent study from the University of Michigan, Way says researchers analyzed data from 14,000 college students and found a 40 percent decline in empathy since 1979, with the biggest drop happening after the year 2000.
“This result,” Way says, “is not surprising, given the boom of cell phones, texting and social networking after the year 2000. Such technology reduces face-to-face time and, without such quality time, children are not able to develop their social and emotional skills.”
She adds, “We need to foster our children’s empathetic and social abilities, and encourage them to care about each other.”
Pervasive social problems, such as bullying and cyber bullying, would diminish if teens would connect more with their friends through real, face-to-face relationships, Way claims. Parents must value friendships for their teens and provide the time and space to foster these special friendships.
Talk with your teen about the pleasures and challenges in your own friendships, from childhood through college and beyond. Share how your best friendships now, as an adult, are with those who build you up and not tear you down. And explain how having friends is a great tress-reliever and health booster to you, as you balance parenting, working and playing.
Kim Seidel is a writer, wife and mother who lives in Wisconsin.
Teen Boys Need Friends, Too
Boys in middle school and high school need and want close and mutually supportive friendships as much as teenage girls. “At the age of about 16, however, boys begin to lose their close male friendships due to societal expectations for boys to have girlfriends,” says Niobe Way, author of “Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection, “and, thus, they shy away from friendships with other males … lest, they be labeled as ‘weak’ or ‘gay.'”
During her research, Way followed 200 teenage boys over five years, and she observed them during early adolescence having very intimate male friendships that included sharing secrets. But once they turned 16, they began to lose these friendships and talk about feeling isolated and lonely. “It’s no surprise the suicide rates for boys increase dramatically at age 15 and 16,” says Way.
She advises parents to go beyond the social norms for their sons and encourage them to maintain close friendships with other young males during their teenage years. Fathers can help their sons by asking them about their peers at school and on the athletic field, and helping them process what is going on in their friendships. Father-son camping trips and other outings are very important.
Mothers talk with their children all of the time about their friends, but fathers rarely do, Way says. “Fathers should spend talking with their sons about the ins and outs of their friendships. The fathers themselves also should have emotionally intimate friendships to model for their sons, and daughters.”