What's more important, IQ or EQ? A lot of people value intellectual ability over emotional intelligence (because it leads to employment, financial stability and a roof overhead) but as a parent, I'm more concerned about the latter. No matter smart you are, it means squat if you are lonely and isolated, right? Of course, a roof would be nice, too...
Notwithstanding, I want my seven-year-old to have friends -- at least one, maybe two. But at heart, I'm a realist. He has high-functioning autism. I know he'll probably never be popular or belong to a clique, just as I know he'll probably never pick up a hockey stick. And I'm fine with that. I never wanted to be a hockey mom, anyway!
Socially speaking, the odds are stacked against him. Making friends is a concept as foreign and uncomfortable as the wooly sweater knitted by a well-meaning great aunt. As much as I try to honour his unique self, I am cognizant that if he is to survive in this strange land of ours, sometimes he'll have to leave the house wearing said horrible sweater.
So I'm trying to teach him how to be a friend, how to have a conversation... All those unspoken conventions that come naturally to most people. But it's not just kids on the spectrum, either. Many typically developing kids struggle with the art of making friends. As a child, I was painfully shy, and my mother still has the claw marks to show for all the times she urged me to join a bunch of kids playing at the park!
Whatever the reason, some children need support to engage in meaningful play. Enter Fred Frankel, PdD, who heads up the Parent Training and Children's Social Skills Programs at UCLA, with some solid play date tips:
Find out which children he knows with shared interests. These are the kids you want as potential playmates. Forgo all the "friends of convenience" -- you know, the neighbour kids, first cousins, YOUR friend's kids, etc. They could be the nicest kids but if your child doesn't gel with them, all the play time in the world won't lead to a lasting friendship.
Once you have someone in mind, get your child to ask if they want to have a play date. Leave the rest of the planning (time, date, and eating restrictions) to the parents. It's best to host the first few dates at your place so you can oversee and, to some extent, control the situation. At first, keep it short and sweet, 1-2 hours, and end on a high note.
If possible, arrange for siblings to be out or otherwise engaged so they don't dominate or interfere in play. By the same token, stay within earshot so you can see how the date is going, but try not to immerse yourself in play. After all, you aren't the one trying to make a new friend.
Have your child choose a few activities that are interactive and will force the kids to converse on some level. Tidy up everything else, so there aren't distractions underfoot. Any special or solitary games should be placed out of reach beforehand. Best bets are board games, balls, etc. Avoid video games and TV if possible since most aren't truly interactive. Prepare yummy snacks and whip it out when you think the kids need a breather.
Lay down some ground rules for your child ahead of time. For instance, the host stays with the guest at all times (my son has been known to pull a disappearing act under pressure). The host is a good sport who doesn't criticize friends. If either kid breaks the rules at any point, pull them aside for a gentle reminder. Never embarrass or undermine your child in front of her prospective buddy.
If the date doesn't go well, perform a "post-mortem" of where things fell apart, and move on. Maybe the match wasn't right. Maybe your child still has more learning to do. It's a process.
Fostering friendships is a lot of work... for parents. There are kids out there who can be left to nurture and grow their own relationships. My son isn't one of those kids. He probably never will be. But with the right scaffolding and support, there's no reason he can't make and keep real friends.
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