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5 Friends All Kids Need

3. The Athletic Friend

WHERE TO FIND HIM: The playground, swim class, running on the sidewalk in front of your house playing kickball

WHEN HE'S GOLDEN: 3 through school age

INVITE HIM OVER BECAUSE: Kids need friends who love to go outside and play so they don't end up in an all-video-game, all-the-time rut.

TO MAKE IT WORK: Forget that complicated sports schedule. Instead:

  • Ask this buddy to accompany you on bike rides or family hikes. His high energy will rub off on everyone.

  • Don't make physical activity sound like a chore. Even very young children are wary of things billed as "good" for them, says Borba.

  • Keep it simple. When my son A.J., who doesn't know a penalty kick from a touchdown, gets together with his friend Ben, an expert at every sport known to man, they stick to easy backyard games like kickball and Frisbee. Around Ben, A.J. becomes more active; he'll never be a super-competitive athlete, but he gets moving, works up a sweat, and has a blast.

  • Know when to step in. You don't need to play constant referee, but do make sure that the active friend is being a good sport. And let both kids know that too much bragging or boasting really hurts feelings.

4. The Slightly Older Friend

WHERE TO FIND HER: Among your child's cousins or your babysitter's kids; in the row behind you in church

WHEN SHE'S GOLDEN: Toddlerhood through the preschool years

INVITE HER OVER BECAUSE: She's a terrific role model, and a peek at what's in store for your own kid.

TO MAKE IT WORK: Make sure she's a good influence (at least most of the time); you don't want your kid picking up smart-aleck language or worse. Then:

  • Point out the positive. From the time he was 2, Carolina Fernandez encouraged her son Nicolas to hang out with her friend's son Scott, a year older. "Scott was polite, intelligent, and sweet," says the Ridgefield, Connecticut, mom of four. "We always talked about his good traits, and they really rubbed off on Nick when they spent time together."

  • Find a middle ground. Even if kids aren't at the same developmental level, suggest something that appeals to everyone, like play dough.

  • Think of it as borrowing a sib if you have one child. Firstborns or only kids can learn teamwork, cooperation, and sharing from older pals. Just prepare for at least one meltdown when things don't go your kid's way.