Summer’s a time to make new friends – at camp, at the pool, on vacation.
And making good friends has big benefits, according to Fred Frankel, founder and former director of the Parenting and Children’s Friendship Program at UCLA, and author of Friends Forever: How Parents Can Help Their Kids Make and Keep Good Friends.
According to Frankel, “friends are unique in children’s lives, because [the relationship] is a choice. It’s a mutual choice. And it enhances self-esteem.” In fact, according to Frankel, friendship improves kids’ self esteem even more than self-esteem training. It also protects kids from bullying.
But making friends isn’t always easy, especially for boys, who Frankel says are three times more likely to struggle with forming friendships than girls, perhaps because boys tend to be more competitive, and less likely to help each other in social situations.
The good news?
Parents can help kids lay the foundation for good friendships in elementary school, Frankel says, simply by setting them up on play dates, and then paying attention: both to the other children, and their own. What parents learn by listening in can help them nurture their own kids’ social skills, and encourage friendships with other healthy kids. Frankel also suggests parents start conversations with kids about the social situation at school. “Instead of asking what did you learn,” he says, try “Who did you play with? What did you do?”
By middle school, kids start to cluster into groups. And some earlier friendships may change or fade away. That can be painful, Frankel says, but it’s important to let them go. And not to get too focused on being part of the ‘right’ group. “Wanting to join the popular group is a big mistake,” Frankel says. “They’re not necessarily nice kids, just dominant kids.” So if kids get too concerned with being part of a particular crowd, says Frankel, parents should help them to refocus on building individual relationships, which is where real friendships are formed.
High school kids connect with each other based on shared interests, which “give them something to talk about,” Frankel says. The important thing, according to Frankel, is to “develop the interest first.” If a kid tries to get into a group that is interested in something she doesn’t really like, she “won’t have anything to share,” says Frankel. Parents can help, not by encouraging kids to make friends, but by encouraging kids to develop interests. Once kids find something they really love to do, Frankel says, the friendships will form naturally.