Understand how kids of all ages make friends and how you can nurture friendships in your children’s ministry classrooms.
Ages 2 to 4: Sharing
Young children depend on others to help them develop positive social skills. With their limited verbal skills and their concrete thinking, 2-year-olds sometimes have trouble negotiating disagreements over sharing. Even when they seem engaged in unrelated activities, toddlers notice a forgotten toy when someone else plays with it. So provide enough toys so sharing isn’t a big problem for younger children. Use praise to reinforce good behavior, such as “It was nice of you to share your toy.” Older preschoolers are learning to play in groups. Provide a play area with games, dress-up clothes, and puppets where children can play with each other, learn how to share, and take turns. Help children refine their negotiation skills to resolve conflicts. Give them ideas of what to say. Use Scripture to emphasize giving and receiving; for example, “Be generous and ready to share” (1 Timothy 6:18).
Ages 5 to 8: Bullies
Kids this age are learning to be independent and choose their friends. Children are learning conformity by having to adjust to new school rules. Kids’ self-image is strongly related to others’ opinions of them. When kids don’t feel good about themselves, they feel rejected by others. They may act out their rejection through hostile actions such as bullying. Bullies don’t know how to handle their insecure feelings. Because they so desperately crave peer attention, they strive to be noticed-whether the influence is positive or negative. Enhance kids’ self-image with activities that involve different skills they may excel in, such as crafts, games, and reading. Give positive reinforcement for kids’ unique gifts and talents.
To help a bully, stress respect. Be a positive role model. Handle class conflict without anger. Talk about how God expects us to treat others. Help children identify and own their feelings. Talk about how Jesus handled disagreements. Let kids know God understands our emotions, whether good or bad. Encourage them to ask God for help in understanding and befriending other people.
If you are aware of a bullying incident, contact the child’s parent. Talk about how you can help and work with the parent to eliminate the problem.
Ages 9 to 12: Cliques
Older kids are interdependent. Sometimes this stage is called the “gang stage.” Positive peer influence causes cliques; negative peer influence may cause gangs. Parental authority diminishes, and kids want to be with their friends. Kids can gain confidence in their social groups; cliques help them create an identity apart from their parents. Sometimes, though, cliques exclude other kids. And some kids lack confidence to interact with cliques because they fear rejection. Help kids develop healthy social relationships.
Plan learning activities where kids are required to work together and depend on each other. Role play friendship situations. Form randomly selected teams to play noncompetitive games that help kids get to know each other. Build friendships; for example, have kids give gifts and notes to secret pals, or assign prayer buddies. Show kids by example how to greet new people in class. Talk about the qualities of a good friend. Compare those qualities to God’s friendship with us.
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