Playground Politics: How Kids Make Friends

Center for Family Engagement Logo

Subscribe for Updates


Notes from the Backpack banner

Episode 73 │ Playground Politics: How Kids Make Friends

Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023

Subscribe on your favorite podcast platform:

Apple Podcasts Google Podcasts Stitcher Spotify Tune In

Listen now:

Show Notes

Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore

Friendships are a cornerstone of childhood, but some kids have an easier time making friends than others. We talked to psychologist, author and friendship expert, Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore to learn how families can support their children in building and maintaining healthy relationships with their peers. Dr. Kennedy-Moore shares how friendships change and develop as children age and how parents can coach from the sidelines.


Keep the Conversation Going

Like this episode? Share your thoughts with us via social media @National PTA and by using #BackpackNotes. Be sure to visit for more resources from today’s episode.


Kisha: Welcome back to Notes from the Backpack, a PTA podcast. I'm Kisha DeSandies Lester.

Helen: And I'm Helen Westmoreland. And we are your co hosts.

Kisha: Yes, we are. And today we're talking about friendship. Friends play such an important role in our lives, especially as we're growing up. Whether your child is a social butterfly or struggles to make friends, parents and other family members play such an important role in helping kids build strong relationships.

Helen: That's right, Kisha. We're going to dive into how families can help their children make and keep friends with our incredible expert, Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore, who you or your kids may know as Dr. Friendtastic. Dr. Kennedy-Moore is a psychologist, author, and mom of four based in New Jersey. She's the creator of the Kids Ask Dr. Friendtastic podcast, a weekly five minute podcast for children. She's written two books for children about making and keeping friends and four books for parents, all about children's feelings and friendships. Welcome, Dr. Eileen. Thank you so much for joining us.

Eileen: Thank you for having me. I'm really excited to be here today.

Helen: Oh, thank you. So we like to start out by just hearing a little bit about our guest's journey to arrive at this episode today. Can you tell us a little more about yourself and what's led you to the work of focusing on friendship?

Eileen: Well, I think it actually begins in my own childhood. I moved around a lot when I was growing up, about every three years. I was born in Chicago, moved to Lima, Peru, moved back to the Chicago area, moved to Madrid, Spain, back to the Chicago area, and then eventually to the East Coast. So you could say that I became an expert on making and keeping friends at a very young age.

And in my practice as a clinical psychologist, this is one of the main concerns that I hear from kids. From the research, we know that when children have good friends, they feel happier, they cope better with stress, they're more engaged in school, they're less likely to be bullied. Friendship is pretty much the answer to everything when it comes to kids. So that's why I really devoted a lot of time and effort to giving kids and families the tools they need to build strong and caring friendships.

Kisha: That's great. Yes. I think a lot about my children making friends and how that's going to affect their lives later. And as parents, most of what we know about friendships is from our own experiences. So I want to go beyond that. Because sometimes that might not be as helpful for a parent. What does research say about children and their friendships?

Eileen: Well, one, the research points to the importance of friendship. But the other thing is sometimes our assumptions about what kids ought to do aren't necessarily correct. For instance, it's very common for parents to say to their kids, ‘go over there and introduce yourself and ask if you can play.’

Helen: Oh, I do that.

Kisha: I do it.

Eileen: Well, I kind of like the nudging, but, but what research tells us, and they've done observational studies of kids on playgrounds to figure this out. And what they find is that there's a very specific sequence for how children join a group at play. And that sequence is watch, then blend. So watch what the other kids are doing and then slide into the action without interrupting. So, if all the kids are playing Foursquare, our kid needs to see where the end of the line is, see who's in which position, and then go stand at the end of the line and wait their turn.

If everybody is playing soccer, our kid needs to watch and see which team is losing, and then slide into that action. If all the kids are building something, our kid can join by giving a compliment or bringing extra building materials and just slide in without interrupting. It seems from an adult perspective, it's polite to go over there and say, ‘Hi, I'm Sarah, can I play too?’ but think about it from a kid's perspective. They have to stop what they're doing, turn around, look at your kid. And that's just too much of an opening for the more mischievous kids to say, “No, you can't play. Ha ha ha.” So watch, then blend.

Kisha: I love that.

Helen: That is great advice. So continuing on the advice train, I mentioned my daughter is a rising kindergartner and I can already see that, the way she thinks about her friends is so different from even just a year ago, right? Much less two years ago. So I'm curious, Eileen, if you could share a little bit about what kind of friendship behaviors or milestones parents should look for at different ages with their kids.

Eileen: What fuels the development of children's friendship from those love the one you're with friendships of the toddler years to the more intimate and lasting friendships of the teen years and beyond is an increasing ability to understand someone else's perspective. This is great because this is absolutely something that we as parents can help with. At the younger ages, we have kind of a what's in it for me friendship attitude and there's kind of an expectation that I'll do nice things for my friends and the friends better do nice things for me. So there's a bit of a keeping score attitude.

And there's also around nine, that glued together stage where I expect that my friend is going to do absolutely everything with me. And if they have another friend, well, Ooh, that feels like a terrible betrayal, but then as they get older, they're more accepting of, Oh, we can have different friends. So. We can help our kids to imagine other people's perspective, and that's like their GPS for navigating the social world. One thing that I talk about a lot is what's called the magnet myth of friendship. A lot of times kids think that in order to make friends, I have to be so amazing and wonderful that I draw friends to me the way a magnet attracts metal. This is a myth, because it's not how it works. Friendship is fundamentally a relationship between equals. So if you're talking about something that's true only of you and not the other person, that's irrelevant to friendship. Instead of trying to impress, we need to focus on connecting. What is the common ground that you have with that other kid? What do you both like to do? That's where friendships grow.

Kisha: So I do that because I'm just always looking at my son. You know, he's seven. He's somewhat reserved. We've been through the kindergarten years at a new school and that was tough. He set a goal to make three friends and he decided these three people are going to be my friends and it doesn't work quite like that. But watching it is just so frustrating as a parent, I can say from my own experience and I know he's at that age where the kids he's meeting now could be his lifelong friends. And so I want to not put my biases on him. But also what do we do when we see our children struggling, as they're making friends maybe they do have some friends, but they're struggling with some of the dynamics that you just mentioned, because so many times I do want to intervene, but I'm not sure if it's going to help or hurt the situation.

Eileen: Usually you want to coach from the side rather than leaping into the action with your child. And of course, we never want to criticize our kid in front of other kids, because it hurts their friendships. The single best thing that parents can do to reinforce their children's friendships is one on one playdates. So help your child think about who they might invite over and then get them over somehow or get them together. Even if you're meeting at a park, those one on one get togethers are just so powerful for deepening the friendship. Now, often at the beginning of a friendship, there's that awkward moment where one kid says to the other kid, what do you want to do? And the other kid says, I don't know, what do you want to do? We can prep our kids to prevent this, right? So tell your child, when the guest arrives, give two choices of something to do. Do you want to do Legos or do you want to play outside? And that gets them to having fun together as quickly as possible. And that's what research tells us, is the more kids have fun together, the more likely they are to become friends.

Kisha:I love that.

Helen: Yeah, I like that. That's good advice. I'm curious, from the lens of maybe an older child. And you mentioned, Eileen, that you switched schools and moved around a lot growing up. In addition, to some of those great tips for some younger students, what advice do you have for parents on how to support maybe their tweens and teens, and the play date isn't exactly the right structure for a 13 year old. What advice do you have for parents of teenagers and how to support them making friends?

Eileen: A couple of things, first of all, we still want to do those one on one get togethers and we still want the kids to do fun things together. Kids make friends by doing fun things together. So talk with your child about what they're interested in, what they'd like to learn, and they're going to find kindred spirits if they go do those things. So we want to think about what can they do with other kids and that's a very easy segue into a friendship. We also want to talk about being open to friendship. So how do you signal to somebody that, ‘hey, I'd like to be friends with you?’ It starts with a greeting. Babies are very good at this, you know, they'll greet anybody. But once the older kids get more self conscious, it's like, ‘oh, that's weird.’ They sometimes resist doing it. But the problem is, if they look down and look away, they're signaling, I don't like you, I don't want anything to do with you. That's not what they're feeling, but that's what they're communicating. If I have a kid who's really resistant to saying hi to people, what I'll do is have them collect some data.

Next day, you're in school or at soccer practice or wherever you are. Count how many greetings you see or you hear among other kids. And they're usually surprised by how often it happens. And then I might coach them on the four steps of a friendly greeting. So you look the person in the eye, or if that's uncomfortable for you, look them in the forehead in between the eyebrows. From a little bit of a distance, you really can't tell the difference.

And then you smile to say you're happy to see the person. You say hello or hi, and then you say the person's name to make the greeting personal and that says, Hey, I am happy to see you.

We can also approach somebody with a compliment and it has to be sincere and not too many. So you can't say, I like your shoes, I like your shirt. Too much, too much. Just one sincere compliment is good. And then a small act of kindness. There are so many standards that our kids may or may not meet. They may or may not make it into the advanced choir, or the travel soccer team, or any number of other things. But kindness is something that we are all capable of doing every single day. When my kids were younger, we used to have a tradition of at dinnertime, we would go around the table. And everybody would have to report what act of kindness they did for that day.

Helen: Oh, that's good.

Eileen: And yeah, because yeah, in my view, if you haven't done anything kind for anybody the whole day, that's kind of a wasted day. And sometimes they would get, you know, the letter of the law, not the spirit. So I remember my son throwing the baby on the couch and saying, I'm reading you a book. And the baby's like, okay, but he had to have something to report. And then when they got older and mouthier they were like, I didn't do any kindness. And I said, Well, it's got two hours till bedtime. There's still time because we want to have that expectation of doing kindness, spreading kindness in the world. Isn't that the answer to everything?

Kisha: We need it so much. So speaking of which, one of the things I know, I'm not the only parent but I do worry about who my child spends their time with especially as they get older, I'm always pointing out to my son and daughter, the good attributes of a friendship. So if they tell me about their day or we have an experience I said, well, that's what a friend does. Or even with my son when he was going through kindergarten, so desperately wanting to as a new kid, make friends encountering, you know, behavior that wasn't so nice and he dealt with that a lot had a bully situation for all the first graders last year just constantly saying that's not what friendship looks like but what do we do when our child wants to be friends with someone who we don't think is a good influence or who isn't treating them kindly?

Eileen: Sometimes kids stick with a not so kind friend because they feel like they don't have alternatives. So I think what you're doing about educating your child about this is how we are in relationships. This is what it means to be a good friend is very useful for their standard, right? But we also want to give them opportunities. If your child is resisting inviting anybody over, you could have a family game night. We used to do this in my family all the time. So I would invite another family over after dinner. So I didn't even have to make a meal. And then we would play a game. And then I would bring out dessert and fruit. And the kids ran off and I got a playdate too, which was great.

But that can be the way to break the ice a little bit. It's tempting to say, that's it. You're never seeing that little hellion again, right? But we want to entertain the possibility that our kid is doing the rotten things, too. You know, it could be,it's often two to tango.

Another thing, though, to ask is, how do you feel when you're with that kid? And they're going to have conflicts, and they're going to have upsets, and that's really useful to learn to move past those. But if more often than not, you feel unhappy or put down. That's not so good. With the older kids, you can also ask about, do you feel like you can be yourself with these people? Or do you feel like you have to pretend and hide parts of yourself. If you were struggling? How would these friends respond? Like some friends would respond by teasing or putting them down and that's really not a friendship I would want for myself or for my kids. But we can ask good questions to help our children think through the relationships.

We also have to help them think through, are you a good friend? Like that's equally important. Yeah. So what are the ingredients of a good friendship? Well, you gotta be fun, right? So what are you doing to have fun together? You have to be kind. What are you doing to show kindness or support, for your friendship. That really important too. And there's also the idea of loyalty of sticking with the friend, not just dumping them wherever. And another one is being able to get past conflicts. All friendships are going to have conflicts, and sometimes those are friendship enders. So what we know from research is that one half of first graders’ friendships don't last the whole school year.

Helen: Wow. Okay. That's actually a good little reference point.

Eileen: So it's not that your kid is terrible, it's just that they're growing and changing so much. With fourth graders and eighth graders, one quarter of friendships don't last the whole school year. Sometimes it ends in a big blow up. Sometimes they just kind of fade away and one does this sport and the other does that sport and they just don't have as much time together or they get assigned to different classes that can also weaken their friendship, because they just don’t have the time together.

And sometimes they just change, the kids are changing month to month, so much. We want to help kids to get through those unavoidable friendship rough spots. And there are a couple of different ways they can do it. Sometimes it's a matter of speaking up and you have to use a good I statement about I don't like it when you call me that name, please, can you use my regular name or something like that?

Kisha: Yes, been there.

Eileen: If it's a close friend, they'll listen to you. Sometimes it's a matter of forgiving the friend and just recognizing that the friend is not perfect and neither are we. And we would want the grace to be forgiven for our mistakes as well. Often, and this is surprising to a lot of parents, often kids resolve conflicts by separating for a little bit, maybe two hours or two days, and then they just come back together and be nice to each other. Like we adults want them to talk everything out, but negotiation and compromise doesn't become the main way that kids resolve conflicts until age 19.

Kisha: Oh, wow. It's so interesting you say that because, yeah, in kindergarten and first grade, which is my reference point, It was a lot of this is my friend. This is not my friend. This is, you know, that's where I wanted to intervene because I'm like, what do you mean? When I go to the parent teacher conference, if it's a school friend or when I go out and reach out to the parent and we're like, yeah, but they seem fine now.

So that really explains, the, it seemed like such a big deal because there were tears or very long conversations with a lot of drama and emotions, but then it's like, everything's fine. You're like, Oh, so they're your friend again. So like, also learning to just listen, but not react.

Eileen: I am so glad that you said that, because when our kids come home with so and so was mean to me, like, that's a knife to our hearts. Right? And it's like, Oh, my gosh, how terrible. But you might be up all night thinking about, this terrible thing that happened to your daughter. But then she tells you, ‘Oh, we're best friends,’

Helen: I have a question, Eileen, about one of the things I love about your podcast is it's for kids and your website, itt's for kids and kids write in with their own questions. I am curious from that perspective, we're obviously talking to you as parents, but what are you hearing from young people? What is the thing they're reaching out, seeking advice on, most often or that maybe even surprises you?

Eileen: I'm so glad you asked that, I started the Kids Ask Dr. Friendtastic in I think it was February this year. And in each episode, I have an audio recording of a kid saying their first name, their age, and a brief question about friendship. And honestly, I have just been blown away by their questions. This is like my favorite thing to do. So if you have a kid who's 13 or under who has a question, send a recording of their first name because it is so much fun.

And what I find is that these questions are the deep questions of life. They're about connection and acceptance and forgiveness and cruelty and oh my gosh, it is just and like, who do we want to be?

It's just beautiful, so my format is I always empathize with the kid and then I go deep because I can't help myself. I talk about some of the research and then. I'm also very practical, so I talk about some practical options of things that they could do to try to get past whatever rough spot it is.

Helen: Thank you.

Kisha: Eileen, in your podcast, you really go deep into friendships. What can parents do or how can they talk to their children about what friendship is and how to make friends?

Eileen: So, one thing that I would recommend for parents is to read with their kids. My two books for children, Growing Friendships, which is a kid's guide to making and keeping friends. And that talks about five essential skills. Reaching out to make friends, stepping back to keep friends, blending in to join friends, speaking up to share with friends, and letting go to accept friends, and notice that several of those are opposites.

That's because friendship skills are never about doing one thing. We need to flexibly adjust our behavior to fit the situation. And the brand new book that just came out this summer is Growing Feelings, which is a kid's guide to dealing with emotions about friends and other kids.

Our biggest feelings often involve friends, and so if we can help kids to think deeply about their own and other people's feelings, to learn how to cope with those and communicate about them, I think we're equipping them for life.

Kisha: That's what I want to do. I know, Helen, you're in this same boat. Friendships are so foundational to our existence, and how we see ourselves and see the world. So we appreciate you taking the time to share how families can help their children in this area. And I will be listening to the podcast with my children. Out of everything we discussed today, what is one thing families should walk away from today's episode?

Eileen: Parents often feel very helpless with their children's friendship difficulties, but what I would want parents to know more than anything is that you can help. You can help kids with that perspective-taking, so talk about feelings as they come up in daily life or in a book or in a movie. Like don't wreck the movie by interrupting. So, and how is he doing? But just slip it in. Right. Why do you think he did that? Because it attunes kids to that inner world, which is so important, and it pulls them out of themselves to imagine someone else's perspective.

We can also help kids with specific coaching, and that's what the books and the podcasts do. It gives kids concrete actions that they can take to try to connect with their peers. And more importantly, it helps them understand why we want to do things to equip them for the world. The other thing we can do is helping kids to manage their own emotions.

So there's interesting research on kindness and what it finds is that there are three important ingredients. The first ingredient is that the kids have to be able to manage their own emotions, because if they are overwhelmed by their own feelings, they can't reach out to someone else. The second one is that they need perspective taking and the third one is that they need to believe that they are a person who can do kind things and that it's their job to step up right there. So focusing on kindness is a win win win.

Helen: That is wonderful. I feel like I've gotten a lot from today's conversation. How about you, Kisha?

Kisha: Oh, yeah, definitely.

Helen: I love these. I'm like kindness at the dinner table. We'll do that daily now. I'm adding that to our end of the day. Well, Dr. Eileen, thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciated having you here today.

Eileen: My pleasure.

Helen: And to our audience listening in thank you for listening in and joining us as well. For more resources related to today's episode, check out . Thanks for tuning in and please join us again next time.