Ask an Expert: How Can I Teach My Child About the Value of Friendship?
A good friendship is such a beautifully simple thing—but it can also feel complicated, especially when you're watching your kid navigate the social worlds of playgrounds and school hallways.
Lauren Sugalski Mosback, a licensed professional counselor and licensed behavior specialist who works with children and adolescents in Paoli, PA, explains the nature of childhood friendships and how you can help your little one foster healthy bonds. Keep an eye out for her upcoming book, "My Sister's Super Skills," about managing emotions through coping skills—available this summer! 💙
Q: To start off, when exactly do children really start forming friendships?
A: At around 6 months old, babies usually show excitement to be around those they know. Babies are primed to form relationships, and to respond to expressions and voice. In fact, when parents provide eye contact, play, and respond to babbling, babies begin to develop their first sense of relationships.
From about ages 3 to 6, kids describe friends as playmates who have fun together. They are still learning how to see situations from another person’s perspective—that means they might like to do things their way and are still navigating how to share. This is normal! Later on, from ages 6 to 9, kids begin to realize that friendship means more than a playmate and begin to truly value their friends.
Then, from about ages 9 to 12 or 13, children start to understand and consider a friend's perspective, in addition to their own. They also become more concerned about fairness and reciprocity. As kids enter their teens, they begin to do kind things for each other because they develop the capacity to genuinely care about each other's happiness. Over time, they learn to accept and appreciate differences between themselves and their friends, and form mature friendships that may emphasize trust, support, and remaining close over time.
Q: Why is friendship so important from the very earliest ages?
A: Developing friendships at a young age is important because it provides opportunities for play, which is crucial to learning and development. Play is a way for kids to have fun, expend energy, make mistakes, grow, and navigate new situations. Having the ability to develop and sustain friendships helps children grow their self-esteem as they learn about (and from) others and see the impact they have on another person’s life.
Q: How can you encourage traits in your child that will help him or her foster good friendships?
A: Parents can help children learn to identify their emotions and teach empathy, a key ingredient in the development of positive friendships. Empathy reduces conflict and leads to greater understanding, kindness, and success in life. When parents model empathy, their kids will be more likely to offer it to others. Parents can also model healthy qualities within their own relationships—with their spouse, friends, or even the cashier at the grocery store. Modeling characteristics such as thoughtfulness, calm and caring responses, generosity, and reciprocity is the best way for a child to learn friendship values.
Q: What can you do if it seems like your child isn’t making friends easily?
A: There are many reasons why this might be happening. A child could have social skill or communication difficulties, not much practice, or they may simply have a shy personality. Another reason may be birth order: When my oldest son was an only child, for years he preferred adult interaction. He didn’t make friends as quickly as his younger brother, who has always had a sibling around. Eventually that changed as my oldest had more social interactions with his brother, cousins, and classmates.
A parent can help by setting up playdates and by reading stories that highlight ways to initiate conversations and create and maintain friendships. You can even role play friendly conversations with puppets or figurines together. If a child is really struggling in this area, counseling can help them develop the confidence and social-emotional skills they need.
Q: On the other hand, what can you do if you feel like your child’s friends aren’t good friends or good influences?
A: From an early age, it’s so important to read books to young children on healthy friendships, self-esteem, kindness, identifying and expressing feelings, and developing coping mechanisms. Having this knowledge early on can help safeguard children from experiencing bullying or engaging in bullying behaviors.
It’s also important for parents to know their kids’ friends well. If you observe your child is being put down, encourage them to stand up for themselves in an assertive way. This means giving them examples of words and phrases they can use in a challenging situation. Ask how they might handle a certain scenario, and share with them how you’d handle it.
If your child continues to spend too much time with a friend who doesn’t appear to be a good influence, you might sign them up for a fun class or activity where they can develop more new friendships. You can also encourage positive behavior while supervising kids (especially older kids) by allowing their friends over at your house on the weekends and creating a fun environment, like a pizza and a movie night. That way, parents can feel confident knowing what their kids are doing and who they’re with.
Q: How can you reinforce the values of friendship at home?
A: Parents can reinforce friendship values at home by nurturing healthy sibling relationships, focusing more on having fun and less on competition within the family unit, and by modeling healthy and positive relationships themselves. Having family dinners, playing games, reading books, and watching shows or movies together that promote healthy values are key to reinforcing great friendship traits. Also encourage kids to help out at home and in the larger community. This encourages a kind, caring attitude and gives children the opportunity to interact with people of diverse backgrounds, ages, and circumstances. That experience makes it easier to create connections with many people.