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Making friends is an important mission for your 5-year-old, as he increasingly separates from the family and broadens his horizons with the larger social circle that kindergarten brings. At this age, having social relationships is a truly gratifying experience. Your 5-year-old will take pride in telling you, "I like him. He's my friend." You'll also start seeing a shift in your child's allegiance away from you and the family and toward his peers, who he'll spend more time with than ever before. Your child may also start to believe that information he gets from his playmates is the indisputable truth, even if it's not.
Five-year-olds learn a lot about themselves from the feedback they get from friends, and other kids' reactions play a significant role in their developing self-image. If his classmates comment on how well he catches a ball, for instance, he may think he's athletic. Or if other kids laugh at his jokes, he may decide he's funny. In other words, he'll start to develop a more complex idea of who he is from his encounters with peers. If his peers accept him, he'll feel full of self-worth. If his peers reject or ridicule him, however, his self-esteem may plummet.
A matter of choice
At this age, children find their own friends. They often pick pals with similar traits, patterns of play, interests, activities, or hobbies. Don't force a friendship if the chemistry isn't there. As with adults, not every child's temperament, personality, or style clicks with every other 5-year-old. Don't be overly concerned about how many friends your child has or whether or not he's popular. Some kids are happy to spend a lot of time with one best friend; other, more gregarious souls thrive on having many good buddies. As long as the friends have a positive influence on each other, stay out of it, says Denver-based pediatrician Edward Goldson, a member of the American Academy of Pediatric's committee on the psychosocial aspects of child and family health. "If you want your child to establish good peer relationships, then your job is simply to protect, observe, and let them flourish."
Positive peer pressure
Five-year-olds will make a concerted effort to share, please their playmates, and resolve conflicts on their own. If your child wants to play with his buddy's skateboard, for instance, he and his friend will find a way to take turns that they can both accept. Peers can also encourage, support, and challenge each other to try harder in school, sports, and artistic avenues. If your child's best buddy is a bookworm, his enthusiasm for reading may be all your child needs to get hooked on books. Similarly, your child may strive a little harder on the playing field if he wants to emulate a friend who's a standout at soccer.
Not-so-positive peer pressure
When your child reaches kindergarten, his desire to be accepted by his peer group may lead to dangerous or antisocial behavior. "If I don't draw on the desk with my friends, they won't like me," he might reason. While you can't choose whom your child picks as friends, you can point out when peers are encouraging him to act in a way that isn't true to his nature. Then, rather than telling him what to do, ask him questions about this peer predicament to help him figure out a solution on his own.
Resist the urge to banish a bad egg from your child's social circle. Most children won't respond well if you tell them not to spend time with someone they consider a good friend. Instead, encourage your child's friendships with other kids whose behavior, values, and interests meet with your approval. Invite these children to your home or to accompany you on organized activities with your child.
When the opportunity arises, let your child know in a calm, reasonable tone what concerns you about his difficult playmates. Focus on specific behaviors (why Billy's bullying bothers you or why Tommy's troublemaker tendencies tick you off) rather than criticizing the child's character. Don't forbid him from hanging out with these pals, but do let him know what the consequences will be if he engages in their unacceptable behavior. That way, you can bolster your child's self-esteem by showing that you trust him to take responsibility for his actions and make the right decisions.
What to watch out for
If your child truly has no friends (particularly if he says he's lonely, feels socially inadequate, or has low self-esteem) it may be cause for concern. Your child could have trouble making friends for a whole host of reasons. He may be shy or overly aggressive, or have a speech impediment or poor gross motor skills, which could limit his ability to participate in games. In a subtle, non-intrusive manner, try to find out why your child doesn't have pals. If he senses you're anxious about the situation, he may withdraw or deny that he has a problem. Calmly ask him questions such as, "Are there children at school whom you would like to be friends with?" and "Are you worried about what the other kids think of you?"
Casually observe your child in action with his peers, talk with his teachers, and then — equipped with this information — sit down with your child to chat about any difficulties he has finding friends. Together, map out a plan he can follow that may make it easier for him to succeed socially. Suggest that he invite someone over who he'd like to be a friend. Or point out your child's strengths — his passion for painting, for example — and help him find opportunities to meet other children with the same interest, such as at an art class.
If your efforts to help your child aren't successful and he continues to have problems making friends, seek help from his pediatrician or a child psychologist. Although this can be a difficult and painful process for parents and children alike, once a child gains the confidence and tools he needs to get along with his peers, he'll reap the rewards and experience the joys of true friendship.