One of the more pressing concerns I hear from parents is lack of social engagement with peers. Today, many anthropologists suspect that the need to make friends and allies was a driving force in human evolution. Our ancestors beat the odds against disease, famine, and predators by teaming up. Along the way, natural selection favored people who were good at “reading minds" and forging bonds.
Kids who were better at charming the neighbors got more support--more babysitters, more food providers, more people who were willing to share (Hrdy 2008). Kids who couldn’t make friends would have been socially isolated—and in serious trouble. As anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy argues, babies come equipped with social brains because our ancestors needed friends and allies to survive (Hrdy 2009).
So friendship has always been important. But what--besides sharing--does a successful friendship entail?
• Like adults, kids reject people who they perceive to be aggressive, disruptive, irritable, domineering, dishonest, or selfish (Carlson et al 1984).
• Kids who report a greater willingness to help others are more likely to have high-quality friendships (Coie et al 1990; Rose and Asher 2004).
• Popularity in preschool is linked with verbal ability, kindness, and low aggression (Ladd et al 1988; Coie et al 1990; Earnhardt and Hinshaw 1994; Slaughter et al 2002; Landon et al 2010).
• "Hanging out" with prosocial peers -- kids who are cooperative and kind -- may may help preschoolers build crucial emotional skills. In one study, 4-year-olds who affiliated with more with prosocial peers showed more emotional positivity and less emotional negativity toward classmates later on -- even after controlling for initial personality differences and the "culture" of the classroom (Fabes et al 2012).
• Direct interventions can make kids friendlier and more popular. When researchers randomly assigned some primary school students to perform three acts of kindness each week, those kids became more popular than did children in a control group (Layous et al 2012).
• Mind-reading matters! Young children are more likely to be accepted by their peers -- and more likely to develop friendships -- if they understand the thoughts and feelings of other people (Slaughter et al 2002; Caputi et al 2012; Fink et al 2014). And as kids get older, the links between popularity and interpersonal skills—like empathy, moral reasoning, and perspective-taking—become even stronger (Dekovic and Gerris 1994).
• Kids are more likely to become friends if they have fun together, feel a sense of trust, and make each other feel good about themselves (Asher and Williams 1987).
• Friendships are more common between kids who are similar. Similar kids are more likely to agree about what’s fun. And relationships are less likely to become exploitative (with one partner benefiting more than the other) when both parties can offer each other similar benefits--like intellectual stimulation or social status (MacDonald 1996).
Given these points, it seems likely that parents can help kids make and keep friends by fostering
• Empathy, perspective-taking, and empathic concern
• Conversational skills
• Emotional self-control
• A willingness to compromise and offer help
• A willingness to share, take turns, and follow rules
How is it done? I suspect the most important influence begins at home—with the relationships kids have with their parents and siblings.
What Families Can Do
Families can take many positive steps to influence friendship building between children with and without disabilities through recreation activities. Recognizing that friendships for their children will generally not occur by themselves, parents recommend to other families the following approaches for encouraging friendships:
Make friendship development a family priority. If friendships are to develop and thrive for children, parents must make friendship development a family priority. Given the many demands on a family’s time, the only way that friendships for children can be given the attention they deserve is to rank friendship development as one of the family’s foremost values.
Become acquainted with other families. To identify neighborhood peers who can potentially be friends with their children, parents must become acquainted with other families in their neighborhoods. An ideal way to get to know other families is to meet them through school functions and at community recreation centers.
Schedule children’s times together. If children’s friendships are to grow, children need frequent and ongoing opportunities to play together and interact. Parents must play an active role in making certain these opportunities take place. For example, families can request each other’s phone numbers and addresses. Also, parents can take the initiative to call other parents or teach their children to use the telephone to arrange times for friends to see each other.
Invite children into homes and on outings. As children themselves have told us, an indication that classmates have become friends is that they play together outside of school. Children might stop off at a friend’s house after school, be invited to a birthday party, ride bikes together on the weekend, go to a movie, or simply “hang out” together in the neighborhood. Parents can take an active role in suggesting these or similar activities to their children and in making arrangements for their friends to join them. Or, if children themselves ask to play with a friend, parents can respond by making arrangements for the activity.
Learn about individual needs of children. To feel comfortable assuming responsibility for children with special needs in their homes, parents of nondisabled children need to learn about the individual needs of friends with disabilities and how to meet them. For example, more information may be required about mobility, communication, managing inappropriate behaviors, or personal care needs. Discussing these needs with a parent of a child with a disability – or if a parent grants permission, a school teacher – can help assuage questions and fears, and open up new opportunities for informal play between children with and without disabilities.
Discuss children’s friendships at home. Parents can support their children’s relationships by discussing them at home. Parents can talk with their children about what it means to be a friend and have one. They can ask their children questions related to a particular friend. Or they can find out if there are any classmates in school or peers in the neighborhood that their children might like to get to know better.
Encourage positive social interactions. To facilitate friendships between children with and without disabilities when they visit in homes, parents must learn some basic techniques to encourage positive communication and interaction between the children. Techniques developed in the area of inclusive recreation, such as arranging for cooperative play and teaching friendship skills, can be extremely valuable for parents who attempt to facilitate home play for their children.
Learn about community recreation resources. As a means of seeking opportunities for children with and without disabilities to share experiences, families can explore neighborhood recreation resources, such as neighborhood parks, recreation centers, nature centers, and shopping malls, as well as organized leisure programs through organizations such as YMCA/YWCAs, scouting, and Jewish Community Centers. Children with and without disabilities might enroll in an activity class together, take part in a community event, play at a playground, or shop together. Through building a shared history of experiences in the community, the bonds of friendship can be strengthened.