The summer before my son Patrick started kindergarten, I was obsessed with teaching him how to print his name and count into the hundreds. Looking back, I should have spent as much time getting him ready for new friendships as I did for new words. Even though he was a well-liked preschooler, kindergarten was a social shock.
"Moms play matchmaker or nurture new friendships through playdates when their kids are in preschool," says Geoffrey Putt, Psy.D., a pediatric psychologist at Akron Children's Hospital, in Ohio. "But in kindergarten, it's up to your child to find his own pals." Help your child master the grade-school social scene by practicing these five skills before class is in session.
Summer Scenario Your daughter spots a group of kids playing a team sport at the park. She runs over and grabs the ball.
Buddy Builder Talk about a smart strategy for participating. "The key is to slide into the action without interrupting," says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., a child psychologist in Princeton, New Jersey. "Your daughter should watch the game for a bit to figure out how she could join in." Give her ideas such as running after a stray ball or kicking a ball that comes her way. Another option: Counting the number of players on each team to see if one needs an extra member to make it even.
Summer Scenario You and a friend bring the kids to the zoo, but your son misbehaves. It's so frustrating that all of you take off early -- before the kids get to see the new bear exhibit. Grrrr.
Buddy Builder Explain to your kid that his behavior has consequences for other people. For example, point out that his pal had to miss the bear exhibit at the zoo, although he didn't do anything wrong. Let him know that kindergartners realize that being near troublemakers will make them more likely to get punished even if they didn't break the rules, says Adiaha Spinks-Franklin, M.D., a pediatrician at Texas Children's Hospital, in Houston. And mention that sometimes teachers take away recess or other privileges for the whole class, when only a few students are acting up. Suggest that your child apologize to his friend and follow the rules at home and at school.
Summer Scenario Your child has friends over, and each kid wants to play something different. It seems like they're heading toward an argument.
Buddy Builder Promote problem solving. Whether it's figuring out how to share art supplies or working out a disagreement with a friend, learning how to resolve conflicts is an important social skill. Your job is to facilitate a resolution. "Ask the kids how they think they could solve their problem," says Dr. Putt. "For instance, they may come up with the idea of taking turns or picking a name out of a hat." Encourage reasonable suggestions and resist swooping in after a minute or two if things haven't been settled. If they're truly having trouble coming up with an idea, steer them in the right direction. Say, for example, "I wonder if using a timer would help?"
Summer Scenario Your daughter accidentally bumps into another child, knocking her down. The child begins to cry, and to avoid getting in trouble your daughter says, "It's not my fault! I didn't do anything!"
Buddy Builder When you're in a situation like this, it's important to first emphasize kindness. Although kids this age are still self-centered, they're also very concerned about others' feelings. "Five- and 6-year-olds want to be good," says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. "So, when they make a mistake, try to give them a way to make amends." Encourage your daughter to help the child who got hurt by picking up dropped items or getting a damp paper towel for her scraped knee. She also suggests gently encouraging an apology by saying to your child, "I know you didn't mean to bump her, but I think Sarah will feel better if you say you're sorry." Reassure both girls, "Accidents happen," then help them move on.
Summer Scenario Your son and his friend want to play in the sprinkler, but they've already left a path of destruction with toys scattered all over the backyard. The friend is picking up toys, but your kid isn't helping you clean up the mess at all.
Buddy Builder Talk about the benefits of teamwork. You might say, for example, "Taylor needs your help picking up the toys. When you work together, you can get done faster and do another fun activity. Friends like that." Try to weave in real-life examples too, such as how a pitcher and catcher each have different roles on a baseball team. Once kids understand that their participation is vital, they're much more likely to pitch in.
Originally published in the August 2011 issue of Parents magazine.