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5 Facts About Kids' Social Lives

Kids Are Who They Play With

"Kids see their friends as part of their identity," says Kristin Hansen Lagattuta, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis. The older children get, the more they're drawn to kids who share their interests or their sense of humor.

That's what Homewood, AL, mom Wendy Price Murch learned when her 6-year-old daughter was invited to a birthday party. "On the patio, there was loud music and children dancing, but Kellyn made her way to a small play area where a few stragglers were sliding and swinging. I know it's her nature to be more of an introvert, but I so wished she felt comfortable enough to join the laughing, dancing group of kids."

It's natural for a mom in this situation to wonder about her child's social skills, but a kid who's perfectly happy hanging in the background with her best pal isn't a kid you need to be too concerned about, says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., coauthor of The Unwritten Rules of Friendship: Simple Strategies to Help Your Child Make Friends: "Some children genuinely prefer having one or two close friends rather than a passel of acquaintances." There's an easy test to distinguish a generally happy but quiet kid from a socially awkward one: Does she have someone to sit with at lunch every day? "If the answer's yes, parents probably don't need to worry," says Kennedy-Moore.

But that doesn't mean reserved kids can't benefit from a little nudge (see "Helping an Awkward Kid Fit In," below). "There can be a vicious cycle where kids who feel awkward in social situations avoid them, which means they have less practice interacting with peers, which means they are less skilled socially, which means they feel more awkward, which means they avoid social situations more," says Kennedy-Moore. If that might be happening with your child, gently encourage him to go to that birthday party he's not sure about. Kennedy-Moore suggests saying something like "I know you'd rather stay home, but you've always loved going to the play place [or whatever], and I'm confident you'll have fun once you get there." You might also mention the other child's feelings: "Jason will feel hurt if you don't go, and he may think you don't like him. I know you don't love parties, but attending when we're invited is something we do for friends." Offering to hang around for a few minutes or arranging to arrive with a close friend can make the initial contact easier, as well. As long as you respect who your child is and don't push too hard, he'll be grateful for your help.