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5 Friends All Kids Need

1. The Convenient Friend

WHERE TO FIND HER: Look around. She's your neighbor's kid or the toddler with the friendly mom.

WHEN SHE'S GOLDEN: Post-blob stage until around 5

INVITE HER OVER BECAUSE: This first pal is the one who teaches your child that friends are fun.

TO MAKE IT WORK: Yes, playdates are often like an arranged marriage, but they can succeed. You need to:

  • Keep it age-appropriate. Toddlers don't interact the way older kids do, so don't badger them to toss a ball. Give them a safe place to play and let them be, even if they ignore each other.

  • Lay down some simple rules. When my kids were younger, I always recited the house rules for friends as soon as they entered the house: No hitting. Share the toys. And if a friend whacked my kid with a Duplo? I diverted them with a toy, and tried not to hold a grudge.

  • Use proximity to your advantage. Lauren Wu was thrilled when her daughter Maddie, now 7, hit it off with her neighbor's son. "The kids could get together at nontraditional hours that worked for us, like early Sunday morning," says the San Francisco mom.

  • Know when to call it a day. For toddlers, an hour or so of togetherness is plenty (preschoolers can go longer).

2. The Opposite-Sex Friend

WHERE TO FIND HER: Anywhere boys and girls mingle -- playgroups, music class, library storytime

WHEN SHE'S GOLDEN: Babyhood to 5

INVITE HER OVER BECAUSE: You don't want your son growing up thinking girls are aliens from another world (or vice versa)

TO MAKE IT WORK: Forget stereotypes -- boys and girls can be friends (really!). Instead, try to:

  • Recognize what's normal. At 2 or 3, gender doesn't make much difference; by 4, however, kids prefer same-sex friends. So start early, says Michele Borba, author of 12 Simple Secrets Real Moms Know. "Children with opposite-sex friends develop more respect and empathy for the other gender," she says. "In the long run, they'll get along better in life."

  • Paint it positive. Lisa Chinnery's son James, 3, is the only boy in his preschool one morning a week, but his mom focuses on the fact that he's often the center of attention. And being with his female classmates has expanded his horizons: "He's much more interested in make-believe and stuffed animals as well as his usual cars and trucks," she says.

  • Watch your own messages. Kids pick up on verbal and nonverbal cues from you. So curb the "Only boys are so wild" and "Coloring is better for girls" talk, says Borba. "You have the ability to break stereotypes from the beginning," she adds.

  • Nix your inner matchmaker. They're not headed to the prom, so squelch the cutesy impulse to pair up preschoolers or refer to them as "boyfriend and girlfriend." Such talk will only make them say "Eww!" to being friends.

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.

5. The Friend He Chooses

WHERE TO FIND HIM: You don't need to! You're done playing matchmaker.

WHEN HE'S GOLDEN: 4 to 100+

INVITE HIM OVER BECAUSE: When your child picks his own friends, it's a major step toward independence.

TO MAKE IT WORK: Realize that from now on, your kid will be making new friends -- some you like better than others. With that in mind...

  • Don't freak out. Every parent eventually hears "Mom, can I go over to so-and-so's house?" You don't know the kid, you don't know the parents, and you feel like you're embarking into a scary new world. Take a deep breath and calm down; this is a step every child must eventually take.

  • Check in with the other family. They'll be expecting your call. It doesn't mean you think they're ax murderers; it's just standard operating procedure among parents of school-age kids to chat up the parents of prospective playmates. Then watch for red flags, like their kids' talking about violent video games. Keep the first playdates short and sweet -- or meet at the playground so the adults can chat.

  • Step back. If you think your child is being hurt, by all means intercede. But for the most part, put your Mama Bear instincts on hold and let kids work out disagreements; learning to resolve conflict -- or even end a friendship -- is a lesson they need to learn.

  • Let your kid bask in the new friendship. Your child is likely to go on and on about his pal -- so encourage that, says Maureen O'Brien, Ph.D., author of Watch Me Grow: I'm One-Two-Three. At this age, kids start thinking about what makes a good friend: "They move away from thinking merely in terms of 'We have fun together' to 'Why do I like this particular person?'" O'Brien adds. And that's a sweet question for everyone -- at any age! -- to ponder.

Charlotte Latvala writes frequently for Parenting.