It is human nature to desire to be connected and to belong to a community. Learning how to navigate friendships and groups is such a critical life skill. Some children are naturally gregarious and easily make friends, adapting to the group on the playground. I love watching this happen with young children. You can take your child to a new playground, and within the hour they have a new “bestest friend.” Wouldn’t it be great to harness that childhood confidence and joy during each new adventure as adults? What a gift for some children to feel so quickly connected to another person or group.
Unfortunately, some children do not connect easily with others. Perhaps it doesn’t bother them in preschool, but as children age, they notice how they compare to others. As a parent, this can be painful to watch unfold. Then the question becomes, how can we help our children to begin to foster relationships? We can absolutely create and reinforce environments where everyone needs to be included. At least this gives kids a chance and it helps take away the sense of embarrassment of sitting alone. However, the older children are, the more obvious and inauthentic those manufactured environments can be. As special education director in New Hampshire, I received many requests from high school parents for the school create a way for their child to make friends. It was a challenging demand to place on high school personnel when it wasn’t coming from the students themselves. It became clear to me as parents and educators that we needed to do more work with children when they are younger on the social pragmatic level.
First, I think it is important to emphasize that as we age, it can take longer to become a true friend or to become part of a group. Our kids often have expectations that things should happen instantly whether it is achieving a goal of becoming a true friend. Learning to be a friend, like everything else, takes practice.
Secondly, remind your child to remember that there is a reason why we have two ears, two eyes, and only one mouth. It is essential that your child understand that they need to become a “detective” and really observe a potential friend or group. Good friends ask other people about themselves. “What did you do over the weekend?” “Do you like to play Roblox?” Before jumping all in, encourage him to take the time to notice what everyone else is saying, their body language, and what seems important to the group. He should actively listen two times as much as he talks. Giving good examples of what to say and what not to say is great.
As a child observes what the potential friend or group is interested in, he should think about if he actually wants the friendship or to hang out with a specific group. If the group of boys is obsessed with football, and your child doesn’t know or want to know anything about the topic, maybe they should see if there are other children with interests that are more like theirs? It is easier for us to befriend people with similar beliefs and interests, and some kids need to be reminded of that fact.
Friendships are often sparked when there are not only shared interests but a shared purpose. I often suggest to kids who feel on the fringe of friendships, that they participate in an activity. During recess, our kids at RCS love to play soccer, Four Square, or GaGa Ball because it gives purpose to the group. When I was little, it was jump ropes, hopscotch, and hula hoops. For children who would prefer not to be physically active, interests like Pokemon cards or making friendship bracelets help provide a mechanism for common ground.
Finally, if you are concerned about your child, reach out to their teachers. They are an incredible resource on who might be a good match for your student. Sometimes with a little inside knowledge, teachers can help direct a child towards who might be a good match for them. Finally, this can hopefully lead to setting up activities that both children feel confident or excited to do together outside of school in order to nurture positive friendships.
Meg Bamford is Head of the Radcliffe Creek School in Chestertown.