My son Phillip was upset when his best friend from first grade moved away during the summer. I, too, was disappointed. I was sure Phillip would be lost without his buddy. But a few weeks into second grade, Phillip had a new best friend and couldn't even be persuaded to write to his former pal. "We're not really friends anymore," he explained.
Young children equate physical closeness with friendship. For a young child, a friend is someone he plays with regularly. When they're apart, the friendship fades. When asked how to make a friend, a child will likely answer: "Sit with her on the bus" or "Tickle him."
The flip side of this seeming fickleness is that children this age tend to make friends quickly. Even if your child begins the school year knowing few classmates, he's likely to develop friendships with relative ease.
But don't expect your child's friendships to be ideal. In the book Children's Friendships (Harvard University Press), author Zick Rubin says 6-to-8-year-olds conceive of friendship as "one-way assistance. A friend is a person who does things that please you."
Many of our adult ideas about friendship don't apply to a child's world. Researchers have observed that rather than asking to join a group, young children begin by watching from the sidelines. They might play alongside for a while before trying to engage the others in conversation and eventually worming their way in.
Ironically, kids often initially reject another child who wants to join in. The resilient child?one who doesn't take the rejection personally and who responds to an initial rebuttal by approaching again with a different strategy?is more likely to establish friendships than a child who is hurt by the rebuff and backs off.
To an adult, children's interactions might seem cold and downright mean. But through interaction with others, most children learn the skills to use in approaching peers: how to join a group, how to respond to rejection, how to be a friend and how to manage conflict.
You can help your child make friends by providing opportunities. Arrange play dates with other kids her age or enroll her in activities where she'll have to interact with other children. With help, even kindergartners can call friends to arrange a play time or leave messages on answering machines.
You can use the inevitable conflicts your child faces to point out principles of true friendship. Once, my niece came home with a sticker on her nose, explaining, "Angie put it there and said if I take it off we can't be friends." With her mom's encouragement, my niece removed the sticker and determined to tell Angie that a true friend doesn't force her way on someone else.
?Faith Tibbetts McDonald
Writer, educator, mother of three
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1999 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian Parenting Today Magazine.
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