What can a parent do to help a child develop the skills needed to become the sort of person others will want to have as a friend? Isn’t it a natural progression of the maturation process for children to just pick up the behaviors that attract and maintain friendships? Much of the research focusing on young children and the development of “friendly” behaviors indicates that there are some very specific skills that make a child be a sought-after playmate. These skills must be modeled and/or directly taught. More importantly, there must be an expectation the skills will be applied when the appropriate situation arises.
Some skills are obviously important for developing friendships. Data tells us that children look for a playmate who has good ideas for play interactions and who knows how to take turns. They want someone who listens to them and does not insist on being first all of the time. A child who smiles is inviting even when no words are used. Most children also want their friends to be trustworthy so when they build a tower they can be assured their friend will not knock it down before they are ready to have it destroyed. However, one of the most important behaviors for helping children learn about being a good friend is often one that is forgotten about. Teachers and parents alike frequently forget to help children learn to make amends.
Making amends after demonstrating inappropriate and unfriendly behavior is very important to the playmate that was the “injured party.” Frequently, an “unfriendly” behavior is apologized for by saying “sorry. ” This means little to the victim and can be totally meaningless to the perpetrator because it is so easy to say and then be done with an uncomfortable situation. Whether the injury is to body, property or pride, the result for the injured party is a broken trust with the friend who caused the injury. In order for that bond to be restored, the friend must do something to reassure the victim that this kind of injury will not happen again. There has to be some cost to the unfriendly acting friend.
We know that the brain learns best when the levels of stress-related neurotransmitters are raised but not flooding the dendrites. When a child must plan how to make amends to rebuild the bond with a friend and then implement that action new learning is taking place. At the time of a break in the friendship bond, the victim may not want to be hugged or touched by the perpetrator, but a drawing, a flower, a new toy or a favorite treat presented at a later time can act as a request to start over, to try again. Young children recognize at an early age how to comfort someone although they may not understand why. It is our job as teachers and parents to help children learn how to be a good friend and the value of attempting to rebuild a relationship that went off course. The work the perpetrator must do helps him learn about controlling his behavior and the victim learns something about forgiveness.
As you interact with your friends, remember your child is watching and listening. You will teach them a great deal about establishing friendships and how to treat friends by the actions you take. As you interact with your child, model “friendly” play skills and explain why you are acting this way. If you are witnessing his interactions with others, pay close attention and make positive comments when he demonstrates any of the above skills. If an interaction goes awry, then help your child go beyond saying, “I’m sorry.” Help them understand how precious a friend is and how making amends is how he can show his wounded friend that he has learned a lesson and wants to be a good friend. Before a playdate, outline your the friendly behaviors you expect him to use. After the playdate debrief with him by asking for examples of one or two ways he acted like a good friend. Supporting his learning about friendship will be learning that will last a lifetime.