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Making Her First Friends

Michele Rosenthal

Wild-and-wacky prankster pals. Boy-girl BFFs. Frenemies whose over-the-top fights send fans scurrying to take sides. Are they celebs you've heard about on E!? Try a bunch of 2-, 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds. For almost every famous friendship out there, there's a little-kid one to match. Small wonder, experts say: Preschoolers notice everything grown-ups and older children do with pals, in real life or on TV. Then they mimic those interactions, down to the last hug and tantrum. It's not all about imitation, though. Kids' inborn traits—cheerfulness, say, or crankiness—shape friendships, too. Add nature to nurture, and voilà: The average preschool becomes a peewee edition of Us.

“If you gossip, talk back, and give cold shoulders to others, your child may start to play out those behaviors,” says Helene Laurenti, Ph.D., a psychologist in Charlotte, NC. “Parents need to model good conflict resolution so kids learn how to apologize, help out, and compromise.” Beyond that, it's healthiest to play no more than a supporting role in your child's social life. “Ultimately, it's most effective if you guide them to solving their own problems,” Laurenti says. In other words, your little VIP needs you in her entourage. Stay ready to help, but let her and her friends bask in the spotlight. Here are some buddy acts you might see, and low-key tips for smoothing any rough spots so everyone gets along—famously.

If the kids are like…

Johnny Knoxville & Co. (2 and up)

These rowdy playmates travel in packs—and often leave chaos in their wake.

Official bio: Who says the Jackass buddies are the kings of mischief? Toddler and preschool pals (often sibs) can trash a room in seconds. Brittany Estes of Fort Worth, TX, recently came upon her sons staring at the family toaster—which they'd stuffed with batteries instead of bread—as it burst into flames. Luckily, Estes was able to push culprits Ethan, 4, and Titus, 2 ½, to safety. (The toaster, however, died immediately.)

Behind the scenes: Kids this age love showing off for each other. Plus, they dig the safety of numbers. “They may dare to do something they'd never do alone, or not take responsibility to do the right thing,” Laurenti says (not that they're always sure what's “right” in the first place). One thing's certain: You can count on them to speak up after a misdeed… and blame each other.

Your job: To avert mischief, take overly dynamic duos outside to wear them out. Weather too nasty? Let them scoot around in cardboard boxes, jump off couches onto pillows, or use a toddler-bed mattress as a slide. But remind them that even when they're having fun, they still must follow house rules. “Children need to know that there are limits to what they can do, and they also need to test these limits to see how serious they actually are,” says Jason Gold, Ph.D., a psychologist at the Pacella Parent Child Center, in New York City. So be consistent about what's not allowed and firm with the consequences for misbehavior. And consider helping your kid make some friends who are into, say, board games. Then maybe he won't grow up to wrestle anacondas and catapult himself out of a Port-a-Potty.

If the kids are like…

Obama and the Salahis (2 and up)

One kid's a groupie, following the other—who isn't really sure she wants a fan club.

Official bio: Unlike a certain infamous DC couple, preschoolers probably won't crash a White House dinner to shake hands with the President, but they can still become mighty determined about wooing a would-be pal. They'll trail him, sit close to him, or poke him (anything to get noticed), even though he shrugs them off.

Behind the scenes: Such pursuits often start when one kid admires another, Gold says. “The child who's doing the following probably thinks, ‘If I stick around this person, maybe I will be more like him.’” When the other kid ignores him, he may get angry and, perversely, even clingier. Or he may persist because he's not that great yet at reading body language. The child being followed, meanwhile, is likely overwhelmed, and lacks the finesse to politely say no.

Your job: Help this twosome find some common ground. Sheri Scoville's 3-year-old son, Maddux, wanted to play with the girl next door but kept getting blown off. Now, thanks in part to a shrewd investment by Maddux's parents, they're fast friends. “We got him a pirate costume and a doctor costume, so if she was outside in her princess costume, they could play dressup,” says Scoville, of York, PA. If such measures don't work, try getting the kids used to each other with an activity like watching a movie. Coach your kid to give others space and decipher their body language. Weave those lessons into your day, Laurenti suggests. When you're upset by something your child has done, for instance, make an exaggeratedly sad face and ask “How does it look like I'm feeling?” If a would-be pal's rebuffs continue, help your kid find a different friend: “Nathan seems cool. Want to invite him over?”