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FRIENDS AND PLAYMATES:

How do you help your children develop a growing sense of independence and autonomy by the age of seven? How do you deal with the increasing independence of your adolescent? The process begins as your toddler learns about play and social activities. However, your child is not able to play unless he knows how to play. He learns the idea of taking turns from people who allow him his turn and insist on their turn. He learns to be appropriately assertive without being excessively self-centered and aggressive from you and other adults who deal with his temper tantrums. He learns not to be too passive or compliant when you and other adults encourage him to stick up for himself, to speak up when it is his turn or when his rights are infringed upon.

Social development begins when you relate to your children as friends and playmates. Yes, you are a parent first; but part of the time (especially with your small children) you are friends and playmates. Within this playmate relationship, your child learns how to ask someone to play with her. She develops a feel for situations in which people do not want to play with her. She learns to accept an invitation to play. Occasionally, you may ask your toddler or preschooler if she wants to play a video game, accepting your child's judgment about whether or not to play. Similarly, your child learns to ask you to play, accepting your judgment whether or not to play. Peek-a-boo played with your infant becomes hide-and-seek when she is a toddler or grade schooler. Working puzzles with your preschooler becomes assembling models or playing X-Box with your grade schooler or adolescent. Helping your preschooler fix her bicycle becomes helping your adolescent fix her car. Playing Fish with your preschooler becomes playing Scrabble with your adolescent. Making mud pies with a preschooler becomes helping prepare supper with your teenager. Friend and playmate relationships begin quite young and continue throughout your lives. Establish the playmate relationship with your child while remaining a good parent, and the fun and good times can go on for a long time.

Helping your children select their friends and playmates begins when they are young. It is best for your children to play with other children of approximately the same age, and is not a good idea for them to spend most of their time with children significantly older or younger. Your child who spends a lot of time playing with older children gets into situations for which he is not prepared, emotionally or socially. Similarly, children who spend most of their time playing with children significantly younger than they are tend to relate like younger children. Thus, encourage your children to play with children about their own age and discourage their spending a lot of time playing with children much older or much younger.

Next, encourage your children to become selective about who they play with in their own age group and help them develop criteria for deciding who, when, what, where, and how in respect to play and other activities.

With whom to play? As a general rule, your children should be encouraged to play with any child their age who holds similar values; they should be discouraged from playing with children who do not accept basic parental values of good and bad, for example, children who steal, lie, damage property, or fail to respect the rights of other children and adults. Your children should also be discouraged from playing with children who believe it is alright to get bad grades in school, to be disrespectful to teachers, to skip school, to get into things or go places where they should not. Finally, your children should be discouraged from playing with children who habitually fight, do not play in a cooperative way, do not take turns or who hold beliefs about other people which are negative and prejudiced. Your children should be encouraged to pick their friends and associates in terms of values, beliefs, and behavior standards and not in terms of racial factors, physical characteristics, family background, economic status, or other factors over which children have no control.

Is it alright to forbid your children to play with specific other children? Yes, when your children are young, say, under eight. Even then, do so only when you can give adequate explanations for your decisions. No, your children do not have to agree with your reasons, but you need legitimate reasons based on things other than prejudice or personal whim. After the age of eight or nine, there is little you can do about who they choose as friends other than to let them know you disapprove of certain relationships, and why. It is very important for you to start this process of discouraging instead of forbidding when your children are about nine or ten years old. If you do, your influence will likely still be effective when they are adolescents.

When to play? Your children need to learn when it is appropriate to play and when it is not. For example, they learn conversation and social interaction are appropriate at the dinner table but playing is not. They learn one type of behavior is appropriate when everyone is feeling fine. They learn the appropriate social behavior in different situations.

What to play? This is complicated for children of all ages. They are inclined to play whatever everyone else is playing, or try to think up activities which seem fun and interesting, and are very easily influenced by others. Your children need to learn certain types of activities, like playing ball on certain streets, playing rough in the house, are inappropriate. Along with knowing what not to play, your children need an inventory of things to play, and a creative attitude toward play. These notions apply to your adolescent as well as your toddler and preschooler.

Where to play? Many of the same issues arise in terms of your children learning where to play. They may learn one kind of activity is acceptable in the living room while other activities are acceptable when playing outside; some activities are appropriate at church while others are not.

How to play? Your children learn to play aggressively but not belligerently or destructively, cooperatively but not passively, enthusiastically but with self-control.

The whole area of friends and playmates is extremely complicated and requires a lot of careful parenting. It starts with your being good friends and playmates with your children and setting good examples of play and social activities. You exercise discretion over the activities and friends of your younger children, and gradually recognize the older your children get, the more autonomous and independent they are socially. Throughout, your children learn to be selective about who they play with, when it is appropriate to play, and where to play. They develop a wide inventory of skills and ideas about how to play, and increasing good judgment about what to play.

It is very important you play with your children, take time to get to know the children they play with, become familiar with your children's games and activities, and spend time talking with them and interacting with them around selection of friends and activities. If your involvement in this social development is insufficient, your children haphazardly develop friends and relationships and simply go along with the crowd and go along with whatever is happening. Alternatively, if you involve yourself too much and become overcontrolling, your children do not learn to experiment with relationships, to select friends and playmates for themselves, and do not develop the social wisdom that comes through experience, experimentation, and self examination.

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