I’ll never forget the first time my son was rejected on the playground. He was three years old. We had just moved across the country, away from our family and friends, and I thought that a good way to meet new people would be to go to local parks and playgrounds and just start introducing myself. “How hard could it be?” I thought. I encouraged my son to reach out and introduce himself, too.
On one of our first days in our new city, we were at the playground when a new kid arrived. My son was genuinely excited to see him there. “Hiiiii!” he shouted, loudly and emphatically.
To my surprise, his welcome went completely ignored.
I could see the disappointment in his face and could tell that his feelings were hurt. I was disappointed for him, too. No parent wants to see their child rejected. Even though the child was close to his age and seemed nice, he just wasn’t interested in acknowledging him. This happened over and over again during the next few weeks.
I didn’t know what the problem was. Some of the children were friendly, but many of them would just ignore my sweet son. This meeting new friends business certainly wasn’t easy.
At first I’d grumble: “Couldn’t they just have said ‘hi’? It’s not THAT hard, right? Who doesn’t want new friends?!”
But as I thought through it further, I realized that just as it can be difficult for adults to make new friends, it can be difficult for children, too. Some are naturally social, and some are shy.
Even though my three-year-old son can say “hi” and reach out to others, that doesn’t mean he’ll be as forthright at age seven or eight. Children go through many stages of development, their personalities change, and, well, they’re kids.
Friendships don’t just happen, even for kids. Making a new friend is a skill, and it takes effort—and sometimes a little help from parents. I didn’t want to be one of those “overprotective parents.” But thankfully, I found out parental intervention in this kind of situation is actually a good thing.
Mitch Prinstein, a clinical child psychologist, explains in his book Popular that it is helpful to intervene on behalf of a child in order to foster healthy social friendships (while not becoming too involved).
Of course, it’s more difficult to meet new friends at a playground than in a one-on-one situation. An organized playdate generally takes a little planning and provides a more structured environment. But it’s valuable to be able to approach new people in any place or situation; it builds courage, not to mention community.
I worried that my son would eventually stop trying if his greetings continued to be met with rejection. His natural willingness to reach out was something I wanted to encourage. So I stepped out of my comfort zone and began to prompt conversations and encourage good social manners.
When my son would ask me why someone didn’t say “hi” to him, I’d explain that sometimes people just don’t know that they are supposed to respond, and that’s okay.
After a few weeks of continued effort, encouragement, and a little parental guidance, we had both made a number of great friends at various playgrounds. The time and perseverance paid off.
Steps for Helping Young Kids Make Friendships
01. Set an Example
You’d be surprised what social cues kids pick up from listening to and observing you. Approaching new moms is a great way to set an example for your child to follow. One benefit to this approach is that if you and the other mom hit it off, you can introduce your kids to one another.
02. Practice Saying Hello
Going through the motions of saying “hi” is a great place to start if your child is struggling with introductions. Practice will help ingrain the habit.
Once he has mastered the initial welcome, you can prompt him with other questions like, “Can you tell the little boy or girl your name?” or “Can you tell them how old you are?” Sometimes the other child will reply with his name and age, and sometimes he won’t. Either way, it’s another step in the right direction! These first few questions will help get the ball rolling.
03. Find Common Ground
Just like adults, kids want to find friends with common interests. Uncover the other child’s interests by asking (on your child’s behalf) something like: “Do you like dinosaurs?” or “We love animals—do you have a pet dog?” If the answer is “no,” you can follow up by asking them what they do like.
Another good “icebreaker” for kids is identifying something they are proud of. Maybe the child is wearing cool shoes or a pretty shirt. Say something like: “Wow, look at his cool light up shoes! You like light up shoes too!” A simple comment like this can do the trick.
04. Practice Politeness and Respect
At three or four years old, kids tend to say whatever is on their mind—whether it’s polite or not. If my child says something that could be offensive to another child, I try to smooth things over, help him apologize, and remind him only to say “kind things” and to respond with “thank you” whenever complimented.
05. Be a Coach
Praise your child’s efforts and give positive feedback. Learning to make friendships is a lifelong skill, and it takes support. And let’s be honest—we all appreciate a little encouragement now and then.
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