Q. I've been reading lately about how peers are such an important influence when kids get to adolescence. My son is 10. What can I do now to help him make the kinds of friends who have values we approve of, so that when he gets to the teen years, his friends will be a positive influence?
-- A Reader From Tacoma, Wash.
A. Now more than ever, children need parental guidance as they try to build friendships.
"It's clear that as we send our children off to school at earlier and earlier ages, we need to work on these peer-building skills from age 3 on," says Ron Taffel, a child and family therapist in New York City. "Age 10 isn't too late, but begin at an earlier age if possible."
In his new book "Nurturing Good Children Now" (Golden Books, $23), Taffel says children require "peer smarts" to be able to make friends wisely, to manage friendships when they're working and to know how to leave them when they're not.
"It's critical for a 10-year-old to know about what he's feeling, and for parents to help the child take concrete action, to ignore the bossy kid or to approach the child who is friendlier," Taffel says.
To increase the chance that your child is around kids who have similar values, look for activities that endorse families being together, such as visits with neighbors and relatives or church-related activities, he says.
Another way to stay involved: "Make your house a home that other children like. That way you get to see the other kids your child is friends with," Taffel suggests.
Brenda Dockings, a reader from Torrance, Calif., agrees. "It helps if you have an open door for their friends," she says. "Have ground rules about what you expect at the house." If a parent sees negative behavior, it can lead to good talks with your child about behavior and consequences, she adds.
An open-door policy also is a good idea if a parent is concerned about whether a friend may be a bad influence, readers have found.
"My children are now 25 and 23 years old. When they had friends that were a little bit iffy, I made sure that friend went with the family to do things together, or when I was home they were more than welcome to come over and enjoy themselves," says Doreen Hughes of Milton, Wash. "My children ended up making the decision on their own that perhaps they were not the best of friends. I also have a 6-year-old child now who is benefiting from the experience of adult siblings."
Christine Trent of Charlotte, N.C., recalls about her childhood: "My mother, I think, did one of the wisest things. I was not allowed to go to my friend's house and play, but as long as my mom or my dad was around at our house, we could play with each other. I thought that was really great because it didn't create that feeling of not being allowed and wanting to do it anyway."
Sheri Beck of Illinois, who has six children ranging in age from 2 to 12, says her kids have learned to recognize children who are a bad influence. "The best solution is to raise them the way you feel is correct at home, and then you send them out," she says.
She doesn't try to stop her children from playing with certain kids at school, but says she will not do any of "the extra stuff outside of school."
"It might even take a year -- but eventually they know this is not the child they want to be with, and they've always done the right thing in the long run," she says.
If your child learns to trust his gut feelings about other kids and can walk away from bad relationships, that's a valuable lesson, Taffel says.
Praise your child when he cares about how he's doing in school, cares about what adults think, comes to the rescue of an unpopular kid and exhibits other behavior that's often labeled "uncool," Taffel suggests.
Can you help?
"We have a 1-year-old who's about to turn 2. We thought he had a hearing disorder due to the fact that he doesn't speak -- he would rather play and do other things," writes Cy Bolinger of Lake Kiowa, Texas. "He communicates with us in other ways. We had his hearing checked and found out he has 100 percent hearing -- he's just fine. Should we be alarmed at this point?"
If you have tips or a question, call toll-free (800) 827-1092, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to Parent to Parent, 4709 Dillingham Court, Raleigh, N.C. 27604.