Good pals can do great things for your child. Give her the tools to build her social network.

As the school year approaches, you're probably spending a lot of time making sure your child knows her ABCs and can unzip her backpack. But there's one more thing you ought to teach her: how to make friends.

Having a buddy or two will make her happier, and it will help her do better in the classroom both now and later. "Friends make each other feel more comfortable in new settings, like preschool or kindergarten. They enable kids to focus on their work instead of worrying about who they'll play with," says Parents adviser Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of Nobody Likes Me, Everybody Hates Me. Buddies will also foster your child's creativity, since the dramatic pretend games 4- and 5-year-olds play help develop their imagination.

Luckily, with their parents' backup, most kids can learn to make pals easily. Jump-start your child's social life with these tips.

  • Set a good example. Your little one is watching how you interact with people and learning from what you do, says Margaret Sheridan, Ph.D., professor of human development at Connecticut College, in New London. Let him hear you casually strike up a conversation with another parent at the playground, or call up a friend who isn't feeling well and tell her that you're thinking of her. Try to make time to get together with your pals on a regular basis, no matter how busy you are.
  • Read all about it. Find some stories about making friends and read them to your child. Great choices for 4- and 5-year-olds include Meet the Barkers: Morgan and Moffat Go to School, Franklin's New Friend, and How to Be a Friend: A Guide to Making Friends and Keeping Them. Discuss how the characters meet new people, and talk about ways your child can use those same ideas in her own life.
  • Provide a pickup line. Mia Aubrey, of Marlton, New Jersey, taught her 5-year-old son to start conversations by saying hello and telling his name. It's been a great icebreaker. "He'll walk right up to kids at the playground and say, 'Hi, my name is Joshua,' and from there, his own personality takes over," she says. Don't think you have to be your child's social director and come up with an opener for him that's complicated or funny. Tell him to keep it straightforward. Even saying, "I love going on the tire swing, don't you?" to another child waiting for his turn can be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. If your child is on the shy side, let her practice her small talk on you or her older siblings until she's ready for the real thing, says Kerrie Laguna, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Lebanon Valley College, in Annville, Pennsylvania.
  • Be where the kids are. All the coaching in the world won't work if your child rarely practices what he's learned. "It's important to provide plenty of opportunities to play with other kids," says Lois Stephenson, president of Building Blocks Child Care and Development Center, in Clayton, North Carolina. If your child isn't in kindergarten or preschool yet, join a playgroup, make regular trips to the park, go to the children's story hour at your local library, or head for a kids' museum.
  • Make plenty of playdates. Arrange some one-on-one time with pals (and potential pals) by inviting them over to your house. Give them time to get to know each other better and have fun.
  • Work on social skills. Make sure your child understands that good friends share, take turns, listen to each other, and don't bully, hit, or tease. Explain that he should look for friends who know and follow those rules too.
  • Encourage your child to explore her interests. Friendships often develop around common activities, so help her get involved in something she enjoys, like a dance class or a T-ball team.
  • Get in sync with your child's friendship style. Some kids have no trouble approaching other children, while others may take a while to warm up. Some like to run with a large crowd; yours may prefer sticking with just one best buddy. As long as he has one good friend and is happy, he's fine.

Copyright© 2005. Reprinted with permission from the August 2005 issue of Parents magazine.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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