A Few Good Friends
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."