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Language & Learning

How to Help Your Kid Make Friends (Without Doing It for Her)

Why hiding favorite toys and doing a little advanced scouting helps even shy kids make friends

You’ve bought the new backpack, stocked up on snacks (and tissues) and your big kid seems pretty much ready for his first day of school. But what about the social stuff? Even the most outgoing kids can be nervous about making friends at first. Here’s how to help.

Take a tour. “Breaking into a new scene can be anxiety-provoking for any age, but especially for young children,” says Michele Borba, Ed.D., a leading parenting expert and author of 22 books on the subject including The Big Book of Parenting Solutions and UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. Ease first-day jitters and remove some of the fear of the unknown by taking your kid to visit her new school before the first bell ever rings, says Dr. Borba. Having the lay of the land can make it easier to be relaxed and outgoing when the big day comes.

Pave the way. “Don’t undermine your own influence as a friendship-maker,” says Dr. Borba. By connecting with other parents at school first, you make kid intros easier later. Consider signing up to be a class parent and try to attend some early school events. If you can swing it schedule-wise, volunteer to help with class projects or ask another family to carpool to a birthday party.

Start small. Focus on one-on-one play dates to start. “These not only give your child a chance to deepen individual friendships, they're also less overwhelming than trying to navigate a whole group of kids,” says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., a psychologist and author of the series Raising Emotionally and Socially Healthy Kids. Lastly, keep them short. “It's better to end on a high note than to drag things out until both kids are tired and crabby,” adds Dr. Kennedy-Moore.

Try not to micromanage. As tempting as it is to be sure everyone is having a blast on a play date or at the park, stay on the sidelines and allow kids to make their own fun. “Help children by giving them ideas of what games to play, but don't get overly involved if they want to change all the rules," adds Dr. Borba. “Parents who gently encourage and loosely supervise their kid’s social activities are more successful in helping shyer kids than parents who micromanage and supervise too closely. So fight the temptation to play ‘cruise director.’”

Hide the favorites. One of the biggest issues for young children is sharing, so ward off arguments with a little advanced planning. “Kids this age still do a lot of parallel play, which means that two children do similar activities near each other,” explains Dr. Kennedy-Moore. “Having multiples of certain key toys, such as two shopping carts, two watering cans, or two race cars can prevent tussles.” What to do about your child’s favorite lovey? Put it away before the other child arrives, suggests Dr. Kennedy-Moore.

Turn on the charm. “Your child will feel more comfortable meeting new children if he knows a few basics when it comes to making friends, even things that might seem simple such as saying “Hello!” or introducing themselves, says Dr. Borba. One of the best ways to teach this is by example. “Kids really learn new skills best by first watching, then trying, so find opportunities for your child to see you practicing skills in the real world,” adds Dr. Borba. Make a point to introduce yourself when you’re at school during pick up or at the playground. Then pretend you’re a classmate and role play with your child; practicing at home will help him feel more comfortable at school.

Be positive. It takes courage for many children to make friends, so make a point to praise any effort your kid makes to be social, suggests Dr. Borba. You might say, “I noticed you sat down next to that boy on the playground and started talking to him. I’m very proud of you for doing that,” or “Good for you for sharing your toys on your play date. I’m sure that made your friend feel special.” Reinforcing these efforts will help your kiddo continue these behaviors in a new school—and on the playground in the year ahead.