How to Teach Your Kids to Connect with Others

Sep 03, 2020

One of the coolest things we ever see is children playing together, having fun and laughing with joy. It’s a pleasant feeling when we see children playing together in unity. It warms our hearts.

But as a parent, as wonderful as it is to see my kids playing with their friends, I also see it as a psychologist. And the psychologist in me knows that it is not just a nice thing to see our children having friends. It is crucial for their future, as the ability to create and maintain good relationships is one of the most important skills that anyone can have. Research has shown that it is related to our happiness, goal achievement, success in almost every area of life, physical and spiritual health, financial well-being, stress resilience, and on and on. So, I want my kids to have fun with their friends, but I want it more than for today. I want it to be a part of learning an ability that they are going to need for the rest of their lives.

And that brings us to a question, “How can a parent begin to help children develop this ability from early on, for instance, throughout the preschool years?”

Here are a few tips:

First, remember that friendship is all about connection and emotional attachments. So, for our kids to have friends means that they are going to have to come to the playground with the most basic equipment: the ability to connect. The first way to teach your kids to have friends is to be an empathic parent and be able to tune in to their emotional states, empathize with them, and meet their needs. That does two things. It orients them towards relationship being a good thing, a place that feels good. So, they learn to like people. Secondly, it builds into them the skills of empathy and connecting that they will then display to other children, and that forms the basis of friendship bonding.

Second, parents must make sure that friendship time happens. It is very important to get kids just hanging with other kids. Play-dates, mothers hanging out together while their kids hang together, beginning in infancy and going forward is key. Just get them together and let them do age-appropriate things. Babies will just look at each other and be there, and as they become toddlers they will enter into what is called “parallel play.” It means that they are playing along side each other as much as playing “with” each other. That is an important step, as they are still learning how to be “with.”

An important part of this time period is to watch them for behavior that is friendship friendly, and behavior that is not. Reward and praise them when they share. Encourage them to do it. Encourage them to play with one another, rolling the ball, or whatever the activity calls for. When they are being a good friend, let them know that. And, when they are not, make sure that you intervene and teach them that grabbing a toy from Joey is “not ok.” Or hitting, or whatever behavior is not friend-friendly is not allowed. As they are able to understand, tell them to apologize and bring in the appropriate discipline. Remember, for them to have good friendships for life, they have to learn that it is not all about them, and how to treat people nicely.

And finally, create structure. Remember, the word “structure” means “to build.” So, to build the ability to be a friend into their lives, we have to structure activities that will do that. Give them group games and activities to play together. I remember taking my girls to parent-toddler preschool where we sat around in a circle and sang about the little monkeys sitting in the tree. The important thing was that we were doing it all together, and they were experiencing the beginnings of community. Structure those kinds of activities.

Friendship is one of the most important gifts that has been given to us. But to have it, we need to be taught how to do it, and possess the skills. See your kids’ “play” as more than play. It is training for life.