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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.

1-Year-Olds

For young toddlers, screaming, hitting, biting, and kicking are usually the first line of both offense and defense.

"One-year-olds don't have words yet to express their emotions, so they show their pleasure or displeasure physically," says Mindy Bostick, who runs an education center in Morgan Hill, CA. "At this stage, a parent's role is just to draw the physical limits so they don't hurt themselves or another child."

That's what Laurie Schneider, a mom from Scituate, MA, is working on with her 1-year-old son, Drew. "Since he's the oldest in the group of kids we hang out with, I had him practice how to act around little babies by showing him how to touch the flowers in our garden very gently," says Schneider. "When we're around babies, we do the same thing  -- just stroke them with one or two fingers."

For the most part, your child's friends will be the ones whose moms or dads you're simpatico with. And you can make it easier for the kids to get along, by helping, sharing, and taking turns, because anything that requires giving something up can be torture to toddlers. "Whatever is in their hands is theirs, and whatever is in someone else's hands is also theirs," says Bostick. "And when they have to relinquish what's theirs, they get very angry. They don't yet care about the way another child feels."

That means you'll need to be on hand to settle disputes and soothe jangled nerves. "When Max plays rough, often the only solution is to remove him from the situation," says Natasha Fishman of Staten Island, NY, whose son is 18 months. "I tell him 'No pinching' and separate him from his playmate temporarily."

Another trick: When a friend is coming over, set aside your little one's special toys beforehand. "I remember having a playgroup at our house, and when all the kids were playing with Alex's toys, he started to cry. Then he asked me when they were leaving," recalls Jane Herzog, who lives in San Mateo, CA. "After that, all the moms in our playgroup learned that it was okay to tell our kids to put away the toys that are closest to their heart."

2-Year-Olds

At 2, most toddlers have learned to speak well enough that parents can begin to teach them some phrases that will help them express their feelings. Then they won't have to hit or grab as much, says Bostick.

Still, it's a good idea to limit playdates to about an hour and vary the activities so the kids can wind down by coloring or reading a book. That can prevent many meltdowns.

Also, be explicit when you explain to your toddler how to get along with her friends. Rather than tell her to "share," Wallace suggests, have her say "Done" when she's finished with a toy so that her friend can play with it. And tell her friend to do the same: "Children don't mind giving up something as much when they know they'll get another turn."

It's smart to stick around to smooth out any altercations. "If my son and his friends are having trouble sharing a toy, the closest parent steps in and uses a timer: Each kid takes a turn for two minutes," says Carolyn Casey of Brooklyn, NY. If that doesn't work, she says, the best option is often to take away the offending toy.

3-Year-Olds

Once they're in preschool, children can find a buddy without much encouragement from you. "That's the magical year when most are ready to enjoy the company of another child. Sometimes they'll choose a friend based on similar interests or because they laugh at the same things," says Wallace. "They also may choose friends who have different personalities  -- who are wilder or braver than they are."

It's hard to predict which of these early relationships will last longer than a school year, but the chances are better with support from both sets of parents. An enjoyable outing with that child's whole family can strengthen the bond even more.

But it's also common for even an intense friendship to fade at this age. For most kids, relationships tend to change as they develop new interests.

Throughout this period, you can continue to teach your preschooler ways to solve his dilemmas, but you'll have to set the limits during playtime. You might come up with ground rules with the friend's parent in advance, so that everyone is on the same page. Rules might involve what kind of consequence to impose for aggressive behavior or even which types of games are off-limits. But if you haven't done this, it's okay to invoke your house rules as long as you aren't heavy-handed. Usually, all you need to say is "We don't allow that in this house."

You can also prompt the kids to come up with their own solutions. "You might say, 'I see we have only one ball and two kids  -- what should we do about that?'" says Wallace. "Very often, they'll come up with a way to take turns or even introduce some other toy to the situation."

4-Year-Olds

When kids reach the age of 4, they begin to see themselves as part of a more complex social scene. "Children start to form groups, although these aren't by any means cliques yet  -- the groups are still pretty fluid," says Bostick.

Your child may not know how to join a group, whether it's her classmates at school or a bunch of children at the playground. "You can start by giving her some words, such as 'Hi, I'm Lucy, and I'd like to play too.' Or you can encourage her to come up with an idea for a game or to think of ways she can fit into one that's in progress," says Wallace. "She can offer to be 'It' or anything else that will make the other kids want to include her."

If there's a particular group that she wants to be friends with, you can invite one of its members or even the whole gang to your house. Or ask them all out to do something fun together, such as go to a movie. "Including them will encourage them to include your child," says Wallace. Besides, it teaches her that friendships are often made by finding common ground.

Of course, while 4-year-olds grow more socially adept every day, they can still act, well, like children. Most kids don't have a lot of impulse control. In the heat of the moment, they just act.

Ann Gault of Verona, NJ, keeps an eagle eye out when her nearly 4-year-old son, Billy, plays with his buddy Trevor. "They fight quite a bit," she says. "I try to let them work things out for themselves. But if they get to the point where they're about to hurt each other, then I separate them and try to reason with them." Sometimes she'll even end the playdate and tell Billy that he and Trevor can't play together for a couple of weeks. "I think it's worth it to let the kids cool off a little bit and then try again. Having different types of friends is a good thing  -- and playing with Trevor has helped Billy learn some diplomacy."

5-Year-Olds

By kindergarten, most children are social beings, with a range of friends they cherish and who cherish them. "Though they're perfectly able to pick their own playmates, they still need to learn how to assert themselves and to choose buddies who treat them well and make them feel good," says Bostick.

Your child may be playing a lot with someone who never lets him take the lead, for example. "This is an age where you can begin to talk to kids about what that feels like and what kind of friendships they'd like to have instead," says Wallace. Teach your child phrases that can help him get what he wants, such as "It's my turn to be the leader" or "I want to be first today." Or tell him he can try playing with someone else who's better at turn-taking.

If you have even the slightest concern about just how well your kindergartner is navigating his social world, volunteering to help out in the classroom or going along on a field trip can let you see him in action for yourself. And don't wait for conference time with the teacher to talk about the situation.

Over time, your child will likely gravitate, as most of us do, to the people he has fun with and the ones who really do care about him. That, of course, is the best outcome. Despite their rowdy moments, my son, Dan, and his friend Tom can be sweet and gentle with each other. When we were moving to a new house and Dan was having a tough time with it, Tom was the first to offer comfort: "We still live near each other," he assured my son. And these days, Dan will even offer his friend first crack at the PlayStation.

When I ask Dan what he likes about Tom, he's pretty straightforward: "Everything, Mom," he says. "We're best friends. I think we'll always be friends."

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