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Up until third grade, Kyle Dowd was part of a sprawling social circle. "I was always arranging play dates for him, so he could have a lot of friends," says Natalie, 43, his stay-at-home mom in Montclair, New Jersey. But at around 8, Kyle asked her to stop; a shy guy by nature, he balked at having to play host to half his classmates. So Natalie agreed to invite over only the friends he asked for: one school pal and a neighbor. "I was alarmed, because I thought he was narrowing the field too much," she recalls.
But in time she changed her mind. "His buddy Dan would come over and they'd have a grand time making up their own board games and Pokemon-style monster cartoons," she says. "I could see that my son didn't need a lot of action around him to be happy." She also realized that when it comes to friendships, it's quality, not quantity, that counts.
"To understand the rules of friendship, a child needs just one or two good friends," says James Youniss, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Catholic University, in Washington, D.C. "With a friend, a child develops important negotiating skills and learns how to trust and respect an equal-lessons parents can't teach." Having one or two school chums, neighbors or even cousins who are on the same wavelength and enjoy getting together on a regular basis provides ample opportunities for kids to practice these critical social skills.
The number of friends a child wants depends on how shy or outgoing he is, and how much stimulation he craves. According to Jerome Kagan, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, roughly 10 to 15 percent of kids in kindergarten through eighth grade are very shy, 25 percent tend to be outgoing and sociable, and the rest fall somewhere between. "A shy child may be happiest with one or two friends," he says. "On the other hand, extroverts tend to enjoy interacting with many kids, and don't feel anxious doing so."
Parents can get a sense of their child's preferences by questioning her teachers and coaches and by watching how she interacts with other children at home and school and during activities like sporting events. The tough part is being objective, and leaving your own friendship preferences out of it. "Difficulties come up when a parent's temperament is very different from his or her child's," says Kim Dell'Angela, Ph.D., a professor of pediatric psychology at the Loyola Stritch School of Medicine, in Chicago. "Very sociable parents often assume that what made them happy as kids is right for their child, too."
There's also a learning curve for parents who are more introverted than their kids. Martha Cid, 42, a publicist in New York City, learned a lot about her 8-year-old daughter by observing her in action at her school's Halloween party. "I watched her flit from activity to activity, classmate to classmate, playing a game with one kid, holding hands with someone else, then moving on," she recalls. "By the end of the night I was concerned; it didn't seem as though my daughter had one single best friend, which I certainly did when I was her age." But as they walked home, Cid's daughter raved about all the fun she had at the party. "She had a good time on her own terms," concludes Cid. "I made myself listen rather than project my own feelings onto her."
As long as a child's bonds with others are mutually enriching, a wide circle is fine. But when it comes to really close friends, "the more the merrier" concept doesn't apply. A child may be popular, and have the social skills that attract kids to him, but that doesn't mean that he has the kind of friendships he needs: ones in which he feels understood, cared for and accepted for who he is- warts and all.
"A lot of parents think that if their child is popular, he's happy and well adjusted, but that isn't always true," says Robert Billingham, Ph.D., professor of human development and family studies at Indiana University, in Bloomington. "Some kids get their sense of self-worth from being good at attracting friends, and feel a lot of pressure to sustain their popularity." A parent's goal should never be to raise a popular child, he says, but one who has the skills to make the number of friends he wants.
To some extent, that number will vary as a child matures. In fact, the whole concept of what a friend is changes as kids grow older. In preschool and the early elementary years, when kids have limited control over where they go and with whom they spend time, a buddy is basically anyone who is available to play and who gets along with them. Since a lot of children meet these criteria, kids ages 5 to 8 are apt to throw out a lot of names in response to the question "Who are your friends?"
Thereafter, the field narrows. During the second half of elementary school, kids start to select friends based on mutual interests and tastes, often forming cliques to which they are fiercely loyal. In early adolescence, the quest for a best friend takes on great importance. "Around age ten or eleven, kids start figuring out who they are by imagining how they look to other people," says Peter Sheras, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Virginia Curry School of Education, in Charlottesville. "They need a frame of reference, so they become best friends with someone who's a lot like them." A preteen and his "twin" often form groups with other pairs of friends, first of the same sex and later, mixed.
While this is the stage when kids form tight bonds, it's also the time when enduring friendships may crumble, if the friends grow at different rates physically or emotionally. "Starting from the third grade, my son had a best friend who seemed to practically live at our house," says Merri Rosenberg, 43, a writer living in Ardsley, New York. "But halfway through eighth grade, she says, their friendship fell apart. "The friend started dating a girl, but my son wasn't ready for girlfriends, and that created a distance," she says. In high school, Rosenberg's son made new friends and girlfriends; now a senior, he's once again companionable with, though not close to, his former friend. Like most older teens, the boys have become more secure in their identities and are now willing to associate with kids who have divergent interests and perspectives.
Whether a child is 5 or 15, it never gets easy to witness the inevitable wrangling and occasional rejection that's part of making and maintaining friendships. But he's never too old to benefit from a parent's help getting him through the rough spots. Here's what you can do to help:
Create friendship opportunities. Ask your child if she'd like to invite anyone over one-on-one, or to have a party of school or neighborhood friends. Entertain your friends who have same-age kids, as long as they're simpatico. And help your child find activities where she's apt to meet like-minded kids. Jennie Miller, 37, a mother of three in Brownsburg, Indiana, enrolled her 6-year-old daughter in an acting workshop when she realized she hadn't developed close classroom friendships, and enjoyed watching her connect with fellow "hams."
Model the right way to treat friends, and talk about it. Your kids will mimic the way you treat peers with kindness, empathy and fairness. When you discuss how to be considerate of friends' feelings with your children, you teach them important social skills. Starting around age 2 or 3, children begin to be able to feel compassion; when they have a conflict with a friend, suggest ways of finding a mutually satisfactory resolution. Praise acts of kindness and condemn mean-spiritedness.
Talk with your child about his or her social life, even into the teen years. Kids can be notoriously tight-lipped when it comes to matters as private as the state of their friendships, especially if something's gone wrong. But they want you to be interested. "It's almost like a test-how far will you come to maintain contact with me?" says Hara Marano, author of Why Doesn't Anybody Like Me? A Guide to Raising Socially Confident Kids (Morrow, 1998). Bring up the topic casually during an unhurried moment, such as during a drive or before bed. "Use a very matter-of-fact voice, with no tension in it," she says. Rather than asking "Who are your friends?" you can try questions aimed at opening up a discussion: "Who do you like in your class? What do you like to do together? Tell me something good or not good that happened today."
If your child declares that "No one likes me," resist reassuring her that "You can always make new friends" or that "Mommy and Daddy love you"; she'll think you're not taking her dilemma seriously. Instead, ask her -- and her teacher -- about recent changes in her life. Is there a bully at school, or did she have a falling out with her best friend? Brainstorming potential causes -- was the friend having a bad day? -- can help give her perspective. --Cindy Schweich Handler