Friendships are an integral part of life for most of us. I've been lucky to have found some amazing ones throughout my 37 years — I've known some of my closest friends for more than 20 years; others entered my life after I had my children — and I want the same for my almost 6-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son. But as we all know, along with the fun, laughter, support, and caring that comes with having friends, we occasionally encounter conflict, hurt feelings, anger, and sadness.
Friendships take work, just like any other relationship, and it's important that we give our children the tools to find good friends and become good friends themselves. Here's how to start.
- Start with self-esteem. The best friends are people who are already confident in themselves, not searching for others to fill an emotional void within. By working on your child's own self worth and confidence (praise their hard work and successes, highlight their best attributes regularly, etc.), you'll set them up to be a good friend to others.
- Model good friendship behavior. Our kids observe everything we do, so if they see and hear you reaching out to friends to check in, surrounding yourself with positive, supportive people, and investing time and energy into your friendships, they're likely to do the same.
- Focus on characteristics that make a good friend. Honesty, trustworthiness, empathy, and being a good listener are all important qualities in friendship, and they're probably things you already talk to your kid about. Keep up those lessons at home to ensure they're taking those qualities into their interactions with the rest of the world.
- Talk to them about their own special qualities and how to recognize others' unique gifts. Of course, friends don't have to be exactly alike, but it is important to have some similarities while respecting each other's differences. By talking to your child about their awesome sense of humor, intelligence, or thoughtfulness, she'll be more apt to value and seek out those qualities in others. At the same time, teach her to value others for their unique qualities (i.e. "You are so great at playing soccer, and Maddie loves to dance. Since you are both such good helpers, maybe you could help each other learn about your favorite activities.")
- Teach them the golden rule. It's basic, but a classic for good reason. Teaching your kids to treat others only as they'd want to be treated themselves covers a world of friendship questions and scenarios. In reverse, teach them to recognize when a friend isn't treating them as kindly as they treat that friend.
- Talk about friendship expectations. One of the greatest lessons my mom taught me when I was a child was that I should appreciate my friends for what they could offer, without expecting more. Maybe one friend is a great partner for playing dolls, while another loves to do crafts, and yet another is lots of fun at the park. Our friends don't have to be all things to us, and that's actually kind of great.
- Explore what a bad friend is and does. Taking the converse position can be a good tool. Talk to your child about what a bad friend might do — not listen, not ever suggest a play date, ignore or make fun of others — and you're also teaching her not to do those things and not to tolerate such behavior.
- Teach conflict resolution. Friends don't always agree or get along perfectly, which is why talking to your child about how to make up after an argument or disagreement is key. Accepting responsibility for our own mistakes, apologizing, and moving forward in a positive direction are key skills for friendships and relationships in general.
- Talk about popularity versus friendship quality. Especially for older kids, having friends can be more about popularity than creating actual deep bonds. Explain the difference and why the latter is way more valuable.