By Astrid Van Den Broek
Shannon Wiedener isn’t sure what’s going on with her eight-year-old son Phoenix and his best friend Michael*. Friends since infancy, they used to be inseparable, but in the past year or so the boys have been drifting apart. “They no longer seem to share the same interests and struggle to find common ground sometimes,” says Wiedener, a Burlington, Ont., mom of three boys. While the pair used to act out scenes from Star Wars or Transformers, today Phoenix seems to still enjoy this type of play while Michael opts more and more for video games.
Sensing a similar change in your child’s friendships? Maybe you too have seen a sudden distance between formerly close pals, or the rejecting of an opposite-sex friend — sad indeed, but perfectly normal at this age. “When children get to be about the age of six, they become more selective in their friendships. It becomes more based on shared interests, as opposed to proximity to children which is how it was when they were younger,” says Dr. Donna Varga, an associate professor with the Department of Child and Youth Study at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax. “Proximity is still important, but it’s no longer the only thing.”
Trying to demystify what’s happening in your child’s social circle? Perhaps one of these scenarios sounds familiar.
My six-year-old son is suddenly shunning his long-time close family friend, who’s a girl. Why?
As children age, friendships get more exclusive. “Kids become pickier about who they like and who they will and won’t play with,” says Ann Douglas, author of The Mother of All Parenting Books (Wiley). This is when boys start really sticking with boys to play with and girls with girls. But that doesn’t mean the friendship is doomed. “A long-standing friendship with someone of the opposite sex may thrive after school,” she says. “It’s just less likely to be a prime-time (a.k.a., on the bus or at recess) friendship. Both friends will face peer pressure to hang out with friends of the same sex and get teased for “being in love’ if they want to hang out together.”
Our seven-year-old daughter and her buds have formed a High School Musical club where they trade stickers and sing songs. Unfortunately, they also exclude other girls. Should I be worried?
When she was a kindergartener, your daughter likely engaged in a different kind of play — more activity-based. “Their play was all about getting the track put together so they can play with the train, or dumping the water in the water wheel so they can watch it spin around,” notes Douglas. Now play is more experiential — about being with people and the give and take in relationships. But exclusionary activities can be the threshold of bullying territory, so it is something to keep an eye on.
Aside from talking with your child about inclusiveness, you can be a role model yourself: treat people with respect, work on teaching your child empathy and try role-playing and problem-solving friendship scenarios. Douglas suggests using your child’s books, TV shows and movies as a jumping-off point if you don’t know how to approach the topic. “What would have happened if Wall-E decided Eve was too much bother, that it wasn’t worth the work of having her as a friend?” she suggests.
My eight-year-old spends a lot of time alone. What can I do?
Alone isn’t necessarily bad — unless they don’t want to be alone or it causes them distress. “Some kids — like some adults — are quite happy doing things by themselves. And other kids are alone and quite unhappy because of it,” says Dr. Barry Schneider, a professor with the University of Ottawa’s School of Psychology. “Kids are better off in the long run if they have friends. So not having a friend is a problem, because you don’t have that social support and can’t practice how to form relationships with someone later on. If they’re alone and not in distress, there’s a limit as to how much you can push.”
That said, you can help. If you also struggled to make friends, share your positive friendship experiences (and your strategies) with your child. You can also set up opportunities for him to make friends by inviting over children for playdates and enrolling your child in clubs or activities to help him make friends with like-minded children.
Astrid Van Den Broek hopes to pass along her hard-earned friend-making skills to her four-year-old daughter Annika and one-year-old son Desmond.
Keep reading for more on how to encourage co-ed play.
* Name has been changed.