Q&A: Helping your child develop confidence and become a friend

Kristen writes:

"Some questions for you and your wonderful AskMoxie family. How do you inspire courage and confidence without encouraging arrogance and bragging? How do you impart or help develop the strength to stand up for yourself and ask for what you need while also understanding the need for a certain level of compromise to maintain a friendship?

These are the issues I'm struggling with now. Sleepless nights (mine were immense and long lasting), breastfeeding troubles, potty training, all seem simple compared to this stage of parenting. Would love some inspiration and guidance.

My sweet boy is almost five and very reserved around new people with quite a bit of separation anxiety. I see him struggling to make friends at school and it breaks my heart."

Ouch. This one's a toughie. First of all, almost-5 is notoriously difficult. I feel like 4.75 vies with 3.5 for tough ages. It's that I-need-you!-stay-away-from-me! thing on a larger scale. So any issue you're feeling with your kid is far more intense at that age.

Having said that: ouch, again. Watching my child try to navigate the making-friends process has been one of the most difficult parts of parenting for me. Whoever said that thing about how having a child is "like watching your heart walk around outside your body" was dead on. Having to watch your child try to make friends brings up all of your own stuff about being liked and making friends, plus the nauseating pain of realizing that it's possible that other people might reject your child.

I would go through another 10 unmedicated labors, 20 bouts of mastitis, two solid years of potty training, and an infinite number of sharp jabs to the kidney in the middle of the night if I never had to worry about my child making friends.

I have tried two different approaches (and they seem to be working, finally): giving verbal feedback, and modeling.

Giving verbal feedback was a lot like what my music teachers did over the years with me (and what I imagine good coaches do): We talked about good friendship behavior to get the right tapes playing in his head and rehearse effective words and actions. Then, after an encounter, we'd talk about how it went. What everyone said, what everyone did, how we felt, how we think the other person felt, what we could have done differently, what we'd do the next time we saw that person.

Yes, a 5-year-old is not going to be especially thoughtful about this, but if you don't start somewhere you'll end up with a 40-year-old who isn't thoughtful about it, either. And you'd be surprised at how empathic a 5-year-old can be, although clumsiness still usually wins out.

Modeling friendship was the other tack I took. I started, in the middle of the divorce, to make a deliberate effort to be a better friend and to cultivate friendships carefully and to show my kids my friendships. This wasn't always easy, as anyone going through a divorce isn't completely in control of their emotions at all times and can be (and be on) a roller coaster sometimes.

But I wanted my kids to see that I had friends and that I was a friend, so they could know that was normal and worth their time and energies. So I made the effort. And as I felt more supported and connected, it also helped me to worry less about my children.

Readers? Does watching your kids learn friendship skills hurt you ass much as it hurts Kristen and me? Or is it just easier for some people? How have you tried to teach these skills to your children?