Robert Hughes, Jr., Ph.D., former Professor, Department of Human Development & Family Studies, University of Missouri
Friends are important to children. They make life more interesting and fun. They are playmates, and they help children feel that they belong. Children who have friends are less lonely and depressed. They are also more likely to feel confident and good about themselves. In long-range terms, we know that when kids have good friendships, they will probably do well in school and grow up to be well-adjusted adults. For these reasons, it is important for adults to help children learn to be good friends and to have good friends.
Children’s ideas about friends
As children grow up, their ideas about friends change. As preschoolers, friends are there to play with. While these friendships may not seem very important, they really give children much happiness.
In the school-age years, children start to build some clear ideas about friendship. In general, friends are those with whom they play, talk and share. They also have some ideas about how to treat friends. Friends are nice to each other, they are helpful and they protect each other.
In the early teen years, these ideas about friendship change further. During this time, young teenagers begin to understand the importance of sharing personal information with friends. They realize that friends are the ones you can share your private feelings and thoughts with, not just those you enjoy being around.
One of the important skills in making and being good friends is cooperation. It is important for children to learn to get along with others, especially in the school-age years when children spend lots of time playing together.
Children have to learn how to cooperate, it doesn’t just happen naturally. Adults can be an important source of help in teaching children how to cooperate.
A first step in helping children learn to cooperate is to pick out situations where the child has difficulty. Does he or she have trouble waiting his or her turn? Does he jump into games without asking? Is she bossy with other children? Does he end up in lots of disagreements over rules? Is she always trying to be the winner?
The second step could be to talk about the child’s behavior in the situation. What does he or she see happening? If you can notice problems such as bossing others around or always trying to win, discuss this with the child. Try to get the children to imagine how they would feel if others were bossy or always trying to win. You could point out that other children will enjoy playing with them more if they are less bossy or competitive.
Another idea is to give them some make-believe situations and ask them what else they could do besides being bossy or competitive. Often bossy children have to learn how to make suggestions rather than give orders. You could ask the children to pretend and practice making some suggestions.
The next step is actually trying to practice these new social skills. The next time the children are playing, encourage them to try suggestions rather than give orders. If you have a chance to watch the child playing, this would be ideal — then you could see if they try out the new ideas. Obviously, change will not come about immediately. You will need to talk several times about successes and failures as they try out new ways to get along. Keep looking at the situation, have the children pretend what to do and encourage them to try things out in their play.