Parents play a key role in helping their children learn basic friendship skills.
Play is an essential part of childhood; walk past any park and you’ll see kids doing what they do best: running, jumping, yelling and playing. This rite of childhood is a natural and important aspect of development. Getting together with other children can raise a variety of issues. Some kids get bossy while others like to bully. Other times, your child may be the victim, playing a subservient role.
Sharing, arguing and cooperating are skills that kids can learn at an early age, often first within the confines of a small playgroup and usually well before school age. Parents play a key role in helping their children learn basic friendship skills. Like any other milestone, a child’s positive interaction with others needs to be nurtured.
Bringing Kids Together
Children generally begin to play with — not just alongside — other kids around age 3, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Younger children can benefit from so-called parallel play, says Dr. Carolyn Landis, a child psychologist with University Hospitals Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland. Landis specializes in evelopmental/behavioral pediatrics and works with babies and children of all ages and with a variety of issues, ranging from sleep disorders to developmental challenges.
“I’m a huge proponent of parents getting kids together with one or more children of the same age outside of daycare or preschool,” Landis says. “These playdates give parents an opportunity to observe their child interacting or spending time with others and to see how well, or poorly, they conduct themselves. The playdates also let parents observe how other parents treat their own children — knowledge that is helpful when arranging one-on-one playtimes. Look for people with similar child-rearing principles and chances are good that they will help their children learn the behaviors that you value.”
However, it can be difficult to find playmates for kids, especially if siblings or neighborhood children aren’t available. Fortunately, families have plenty of options to bring children and friends together. Churches, libraries, community recreation centers and other organizations sponsor playgroups for kids of all ages.
Almost every community in Northeast Ohio has groups of parents that organize playgroups. A quick web search turns up dozens, ranging from the Early Childhood PTA Associations to MOMS Clubs (Moms Offering Moms Support) based in a handful of local cities.
These informal networks provide a great opportunity for parents to connect and participate in low-key playgroups or field trips.
Landis says parents can learn a lot by observing their children at play, but they need to be attentive.
“Too often as parents we are so busy talking on the phone or talking with other parents and we don’t pay attention. You need to put in the time to observe your child at a playdate,” she says. “You can teach play skills such as being able to be creative, using your imagination for yourself or an object, interacting with another person or play acting a variety of emotions. Look for pro-social behaviors such as sharing, taking turns, reacting nicely if bumped into, using words to communicate rather than grabbing or hitting.”
Give kids a variety of objects that they can be imaginative with, she added.
Positive Playtime Tactics
Positive behavior during playtime can be taught by talking with your child about how to play nicely.
Parents should discuss specifics with their child. Encourage children to take turns, watch for physical aggression, and make sure kids aren’t excluding certain children.
“I make sure my kids are aware of sharing and how nice it is to share with other kids,” says Lisa, mom in Fairlawn. “I encourage them to use empathy and understand how happy it makes others when you do share and how it makes other children feel when you won’t share. Another important part of this is teaching them to understand that kids aren’t required to share and this is a choice they have to make. I really want them to understand that others aren’t always going to share with them and that they shouldn’t expect every toy they want to come to them.”
From an early age, parents can talk to their child about friendships and how to play nicely with others.
“I make it a point that any toy that Grace is territorial about to put it away when friends come to play,” says Annie King, mom in Akron. “That way she does not feel that she has to be forced to share her favorite dolls or stuffed animals. But I do expect her to share. If she has a toy, she must allow someone else to have a turn after she is finished playing with it.”
When conflicts happen on the playground or during playdates, parents can use different tactics to help resolve the issues.
“I try to give my children a chance to resolve their own conflicts on the playground, but I am nearby to help coach them through it, as needed,” Lisa says. “I try to talk them through the conflict. If they are fighting over a chance to use the slide, I may point out that one child just went down so now it would be kind to give the other child a turn. If they are having trouble working this out, I will encourage them to play in different areas for a while. I do expect my children to play nicely and take turns. However, if another child will not, I let my children know that other kids don’t always make the right decision and expect my children to walk away and find something else to play with.”
King says resolving conflict is all situational. “Often getting her (her daughter Grace) to stop take a breath and explain the situation will get her to calm down and understand. If she is the cause, we ask her to apologize to the other child and then redirect her to something new for a ‘break.’
Keeping Bullying At Bay
Dr. Kim Storey, a Harvard University-educated author and expert in bullying prevention, says playgrounds can be challenging and often present opportunities for aggressive behavior.
A frequent type of pre-bullying is when kids whisper secrets about another child or call a child a silly name or when children are role-playing and give one child a demeaning role such as being the dog instead of the princess, Storey says.
Parents can talk to their child about appropriate behavior such as sharing, taking turns and using words instead of shoving.
“It’s important for a parent or caregiver to step in because it can escalate,” she says. “Talk to the entire group and identify the aggressive or coercive behavior. Establish rules such as “no hitting” or “no pushing.” You can also teach your child to stand up for herself or himself. If someone grabs a toy or tries to go out of turn on a slide, make sure your kids know that it’s okay to say “no.” “Otherwise you’re teaching your kid to be a victim. They need to be assertive, not aggressive,” Storey says.
If a parent sees bullying and doesn’t know the child, try to find his or her caregiver or the person in charge and tell him or her. When safety is an issue, intervene immediately, Storey adds.