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The Power of Friends

My son, Daniel, spent almost every morning with Sam until he was about 3. The arrangement seemed perfect. I liked Sam and his parents, they lived only a few blocks away, and the boys were around the same age.

It was true that Dan and Sam had different interests. Dan loved to have his dinosaurs and Ninja Turtles crash into one another at high speed with sound effects. Sam could happily sit and look at books and was only vaguely aware of who the Ninjas were. Plus, he ate organic snacks. I thought he was a good influence.

It wasn't until Dan was in kindergarten that he set me straight. "You know, Mom, I never really did like Sam," he said. He now had another friend, named Tom. The two had bonded the moment they met in nursery school, and they've remained fast friends, even now at age 10.

So it was that I abandoned the idea of friends who eat organic snacks and are good influences and learned to embrace the child my child embraced. And it made me wonder: What's a parent's role in these early friendships? Though most of us recognize that relationships aren't always easy for the 5-and-under set, we're less sure how much influence we should exert over them.

"Social skills are learned," says Meri Wallace, director of the Heights Center for Adult and Child Development, in Brooklyn, NY. "I often hear adults say, 'Just let the kids work it out.' But lots of times they don't know how. Left to their own devices, they may just start bopping each other over the head."

Here's an age-by-age guide to the skills children need to forge friendships, and what you can do to help.

Contributing editor Betty Holcomb is the author of The Best Friend's Guide to Maternity Leave.