During the preschool years children develop social skills they’ll need to establish and maintain friendship. Though they’re still very self-centered, children of this age begin to initiate contacts with strangers. They negotiate roles, and they learn to compromise. Somehow they manage rejection, claim their possessions, and learn ways to settle conflicts. Friends do things to reinforce each other's acceptable behavior and even model behavior for one another.
What can parents do to guide the social development of their young children?
One important thing is to help a child learn how to approach other children, how to make contact. Your child will be watching how you do it. How you manage social situations affects the way your child views social interaction. Encourage your child to smile and make eye contact with others. It’s okay to suggest some words to use when a child wants to join others in ongoing play, and some ways to be sure she will be accepted, like "can I be the visiting grandma?" instead of "I want to play house too."
Provide times when your child can interact with peers in a safe and appropriate environment. If you think he’s having a difficult time making friends, try to arrange special play activities with slightly older children. They’ll provide examples of effective social skills. If your child is anxious about using his social skills, give him an opportunity to play with a younger child. He can take a lead role and this may give his self-esteem a needed boost.
As your child gets a little older and is entertaining a friend at home, try to stay out of the way so they can negotiate conflict and mange the give and take of friendship. Step in only when there is imminent danger or a squabble has gone out of control.
Don’t categorize and don't allow others to label your child as "shy," "bossy," or "hard to get along with." Social skills sometimes take a lifetime to perfect. We all know adults who are not experts at social interaction. Instead of referring to your child as "shy," you can say he is "cautious in new situations." This describes the behavior in a positive way which is better for the child.
Encourage a child’s positive efforts to get along with others, even when such attempts fail. Tell him you know it’s hard (especially if he’s shy). Remind your child that making friends sometimes takes a long time, so it’s important to keep trying. Ask questions and help him think about what the other child may need in a friend.