Thinking About Friendship

Young children

Help your kids develop "emotional intelligence" about themselves and others. Comment on the evident feelings of people around you and characters in stories. "Joey is crying; he must be feeling sad.""Why do you think Maria is laughing?" Comment on your child's feelings and encourage him or her to express them. Help with simple terms for complex feelings; for example, when my 3-year-old was obviously feeling ambivalent, I talked about her seeming to have "mixed-up feelings." Also, keep communications clear by commenting on the feelings underlying a statement or an action. For example, if your child says, "I hate you!" answer, "Wow! You are really mad at me, aren't you?"

Talk with your child about who she likes or doesn't like to play with, and why. When she doesn't want to play with another child, it may be a problem you can help resolve. But some kids really are incompatible, and their choices need to be respected as much as possible. Sometimes kids play in different ways with different friends, and it isn't until they're older that they can figure out how to bring these friends together (for example, your child may feel uncomfortable bringing together a friend who goes in for rough-and-tumble play and a friend who likes to act out stories). All these issues affect your child's developing sense of identity.

Middle school

This is the time when many parents worry that their kids are too driven by pressure to conform. Often that's true, but it's more complicated than that. Kids are also choosing friends as a part of figuring out who they are or would like to be and as part of the process of becoming more independent from their families. Knowing your child's particular strengths enables you to help him choose friends who are also curious/kind/in love with learning. On the other hand, if she's interested in people who are very different, it takes sensitive attention to figure out whether she's exploring new possibilities in a way you want to support, or indeed yielding to unhealthy social pressures.

Late middle school and high school

Help your teen choose extracurricular activities that involve his personal strength—science camp for the curious critical thinker, for example, or appropriate volunteer work for an especially kind, generous kid.

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