What's the most important factor for happiness? This is a question I get daily, if not hourly. Here is the answer: friends. And family. Happiness is being socially connected. The best predictor of happiness (and often health) is the quantity and quality of a person's social ties. (And I'm not talking about Facebook here, though I do think that online social networks can provide rich opportunities for real-life connections.) We can teach kids the skills they need to create and maintain lots of strong social connections, and we can rig their environment to make a dense web of relationships possible. The video and post below will give you some ideas about how!

5 Tips for Fostering Friendships

Fostering Social Connections
  1. Build a Village. To say it again: there is no stronger predictor of happiness than how robust and positive a child's "village" is, so do what you can to foster relationships with neighbors, teachers, and members of your community. Encourage friendships with kids of all ages, and foster multigenerational friendships between your kids and their older relatives, neighbors, or "elders" in your church.
  2. Raise their Emotional Intelligence Through Emotion Coaching. Parents who are effective emotion coaches see their children's emotional expressions—even anger and frustration—as opportunities to connect with and teach their children. This helps kids become more socially and emotionally intelligent, making it easier for kids to foster and maintain friendships. Emotion coaching parents listen empathetically, helping children to explore and validate their feelings. And they don't stop there: they teach their children to verbally label their emotions, and then they set limits ("It is not okay to hit your sister"). For specific steps to becoming a great emotion coach, read this post, including the comments from readers, which I think are very helpful.
  3. Teach Constructive Conflict Resolution. Kids don't know how to settle disputes constructively until we teach them, and being able to resolve differences is an important skill to have for friendship. Positive conflict resolution is pretty simple, but it takes practice. Find more information here about how to teach it to kids. Get a printable list of the steps to take when kids are fighting here to post on your fridge. The first step? BREATHE. We don't make effective mediators between fighting kids when we are angry or upset. So unless the action is becoming dangerous, take a second to catch your breath before addressing the situation.
  4. Foster Kindness. Your kids' village is built on kindness. Large and small, acts of generosity, compassion, and giving all build social intelligence and strong bonds with others, and they can be forms of happiness in and of themselves. Show kids the many ways that they can give their time and energy to others. How? Create giving traditions (helping others at the same time every year, for example); praise kids for showing empathy and emotional support to others; encourage small acts of kindness; give kids opportunities to teach or mentor others. See this blog post on what we get when we give.
  5. Get "Other-Mothers" Involved. One need not be a biological parent to help raise happy kids. As Western households get smaller, parents need other-parents to help "mother" their kids: grandparents, stepparents, aunts, uncles, close friends. It doesn't take much: just taking the time to talk with kids is important (often what kids need most is a good listener). Other-parents can also be an important part of children's lives by teaching them how to do something the other-parent feels passionate about; by helping supervise kids when they are with their friends; by participating in feeding and bathing younger children—even just by running errands with them, as we never know when a quick conversation in the car or grocery store will have a huge impact.

What do you do to foster your kids' friendships and build big villages? It isn't as easy as it used to be, so please be a part of this village and post your ideas for other parents.

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On this topic on the Greater Good blog: A review of Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives by Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler.

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© 2010 Christine Carter, Ph.D.

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