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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?”

If the kids are like…

Matt and Ben (2 to 5)

These twosomes love to get together—but usually just to do their own thing!

Official bio: They're friends, but like their screen-writing/acting counterparts, they often prefer solo projects. “Sometimes they'll have a playdate where they ignore each other,” says Amy Kahn, a mom in Newton, MA, of her 3-year-old, Josh, and a pal.

Behind the scenes: Not to worry. It's common for so-called parallel play to last from toddlerhood all the way through preschool, usually interspersed with collaborative moments. “Many children will remain comfortable doing parallel play until they learn the social skills for social play,” says Edward Christophersen, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist with Children's Mercy Hospitals and Clinics, in Kansas City, MO.

Your job: Plan the occasional activity for both kids, and demonstrate how friendly interaction works. Says Laurenti: “Role-model good eye contact, problem solving, and how to be a good sport.”

If the kids are like…

Regis and Kelly (3 and up)

They're opposite-sex besties, but platonic.

Official bio: Unlike their TV counterparts, they work off-script, defying boy and girl stereotypes. Never pictured your son pretending that Barbie is burping a baby T. rex? When these kids play, anything goes.

Behind the scenes: Though older kids may tease them (“Ooh, are you in looove?”), they can be some of the happiest, most well-rounded friends. “It makes her more open to sports and physical play,” says Wilson Moy of Tulsa about his 4-year-old daughter Julia's get-togethers with boy buddies. “It's not all about princesses.”

Your job: Even good friends need breaks from each other. If Regis gets bummed when Kelly decides to play with someone else (or by herself), say “Maybe Kelly will want to play later,” suggests Rebbecca Jackson, a preschool teacher from Blacksburg, VA. Then help him find something—or someone—to distract him. As for teasing from the big-kid contingent, teach your child to let it roll right off. Explain that boys and girls can like each other just as pals—and if you have opposite-sex friends yourself, be sure to point them out.

If the kids are like…

Paris and Nicole (4 and up)

They're the very best of buds—except when they're having one of their frequent fights.

Official bio: Sometimes girls, sometimes boys, they're proof that frenemies come in many sizes. “One minute they're each other's best friend. The next I'm hearing horror stories,” says Arlington, TX, mom Reace Smith of her 4-year-old, Helena, and her friend/nemesis, Abby.

Behind the scenes: Hours after angrily kicking over his frenemy's block tower, your little one may race up to him, all smiles. “It's just part of kids trying to figure things out,” says Smith. “They're little experimenters.”

Your job: If your kid's the victim, help her plan a response that doesn't involve defacing her frenemy's Polly Pocket (“What can you say to Fiona?”). If she's the aggressor, ask her to apologize, but go further. Jackson often tells students, “Ask your friend what would make him feel better,” frequently with heartwarming results. It's good to live and learn (whether you're a playground princess or a hotel heiress).

If the kids are like…

Shaggy and Scooby-Doo (4 and 5)

In a weird—but common—move, one kid pretends to be the other's pet.

Official bio: These friends slip into animal/owner roles that can stretch across multiple get-togethers. For close to a year, in fact, my son's pal spent every playdate in the role of a black Lab.

Behind the scenes: Being a dog, cat, or hamster for a while can be great for kids. “It's part of beginning to build empathy for things other than human beings,” says Charles A. Smith, Ph.D., a professor in the School of Family Studies and Human Services at Kansas State University, in Manhattan, KS. But if your kid often winds up as the puppy, does it mean he's destined for life as a follower? Not necessarily, Gold says. “In the preschool years, it's often about trying things on for size.”

Your job: When your child longs to change roles, help her come up with some assertive lines (“Jason, it's your turn to be checked for fleas!”). Set a timer so the kids take turns, and remind them of the Golden Pet Rule: Scooby-Doo Unto Others.