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Making First Friends

Even if your child's new friend isn't someone you would have picked -- maybe he lives across town or his mother isn't your favorite person -- you should still encourage the friendship. "Parents shouldn't impose their wishes for playmates on their children. Friends aren't interchangeable," says Marsha Weinraub, PhD, director of the personality and social development research laboratory at Temple University, in Philadelphia. Of course, if your child begs to play with someone you find totally inappropriate -- like a kid you know is a bully -- it's fine to discourage that.

Even though your daughter spends time with other kids at summer camp or during ballet class, it's still important for her to have one-on-one playdates every week. "School and organized activities are focused more on doing things as a group than on developing individual relationships," says Theresa Kellam, PhD, a family counselor in Arlington, Texas, and author of The Parent Survival Guide. "It's important for children to be alone together so they can play without adult interference." Playdates with two kids are best at this age -- a threesome often leads to competition for one child's attention.

If your child's friend is coming over to your house, resist the temptation to organize the activities yourself. Instead, have a talk beforehand about games that he and his friend might play. Be sure to ask him to keep in mind what his friend likes to do as well as his own favorite games. If he has a special toy he doesn't like to share, it makes sense to put it away for the afternoon.

Let your child select a healthy snack for the playdate and encourage him to open the front door to welcome his guest. "All these things will teach your child what it means to be a good host," says Tracy Gleason, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Wellesley College, in Massachusetts.

During a playdate, your job is to set out any necessary supplies, serve the snack that your child picked, and hover nearby to make sure the kids stay safe. "Unless they specifically ask you for something, let them play on their own," says Dr. Hertzog.

If a battle breaks out, give them time to resolve their conflict. Offer to act as a mediator if they reach a stalemate. For example, if your child wants to play Candy Land, and her friend is more interested in coloring, you can say, "I see you want to do different things. Does anyone have any ideas on what you can do about that?" Don't rush to your child's rescue if her friend is being bossy. And if your child is the one who's overbearing, don't call her on it when her friend is around. "It'll only embarrass her," explains Dr. Weinraub. "Instead talk about it with her afterward."

Limit playdates for preschoolers to about two hours -- and fill your guests in on the time frame beforehand. After that, kids start to lose interest. "Think about it: Once you spend a couple of hours with someone, you're usually ready to move on too," says Dr. Weinraub. "Rather than burning out on each other, you want the kids to look forward to getting together in the future."

Kids' friendships can often get rocky, says Dr. Weinraub. She offers advice on how to respond to your child's complaints.

"She won't be my friend."

While it's tempting to tell your child not to worry because she has plenty of other friends, you should always show empathy when someone rejects your child's invitations. Say, "I'm sorry, honey. That must be sad for you." Then suggest that your child try to play with her again, explaining that it just might not have been the right time.

"He doesn't like me anymore."

Ask your child to tell you what happened -- maybe his friend sat with another kid at circle time or he wanted to play a different game than your child did. Once you have more details, tell him everyone deals with similar situations, even you. Say, for instance, "Suzie is my friend, but she likes to spend time with another friend sometimes too."

"I don't want to be her friend."

Find out why your child feels that way, but don't push her into a friendship she doesn't want. Make sure you remind her that you expect her to be respectful to everyone -- friend or not.

Originally published in the July 2008 issue of Parents magazine.