Parents all want their offspring to have friends; it's a rewarding part of life at any stage. But they often overlook the fact that the art of making friends does not come instinctively to all children. They need to be trained in household duties, money handling, proper use of time, and many other facets of living. Most also need help in developing techniques and behavior designed to win friends.
Because a child seems to be a loner at one age does not mean he is destined for permanent wallflower status. Children vary in their need for companionship. At five, a shy child may be happy enough just playing alongside others her age, while at eight or nine she wants to be a definite part of the action. Parents should take a cue from the child - if he seems complacent about his social life, we can relax too. But at some point, almost every youngster may encounter difficulties in peer group relationships. When this happens, what can parents do to help?
1. Try to make your home a place where visiting children are welcome. Few of us wish to turn our living rooms into local drop-in centers or host hoardes of small fry on a daily basis. But with a combination of advance planning (''Yes, you may bring Julie home for lunch on Thursday'') and firmly maintained house rules (''Guests go home if they leap off furniture''), parents can usually manage a friendly and welcoming atmosphere.
Being free to invite a pal home after school or ask him for a Friday night sleepover does wonders for any child's social life, but it especially benefits the one who's feeling shut out. In this familiar setting she's suddenly the leader, able to share a special game, show off the new kittens, or teach her guest to climb the backyard maple. Parents can also plan a special treat occasionally, letting a child invite a friend for dinner, a movie, or an evening of roller-skating.
2. Try to observe your child when he is playing with others. We moved into a new neighborhood when our eldest son was six. Although he made new friends initially, he soon complained that they didn't want to play with him. I observed the group from a distance on a few occasions and quickly spotted the trouble. Since my son was the eldest in our family, he was used to assuming a leadership role - choosing games, directing others, and commanding automatic respect. His playmates, it was obvious, thought the new kid on the block should accommodate himself to their wishes - and clashes were resulting. I had several discussions with my son on the merits of ''give and take'' behavior, and before long he had found his niche in the neighborhood hierarchy.
Since then I've done plenty of discreet eavesdropping, both at home and on neighborhood streets. Watching an offspring interacting with peers can pinpoint traits of aggression, shyness, or poor sportsmanship, which can then be tactfully handled at home.
3. Talk to your child's teacher, and perhaps one or two mothers as well. A teacher can be a valuable source of information about your child. She sees him on a continuing basis in a different setting, and has the added advantage of being able to compare his behavior with others in his age range. Sometimes a parent-teacher session can alleviate fears, revealing that one's apparently shy child is actually the life of the party in class. But if social problems are present, a teacher can often smooth trouble spots. Pairing a friendless child with a popular one, giving him a special job to do, or singling him out occasionally for public praise can subtly shift class rejection into acceptance. Your child's teacher should not be expected to act as his social director, but she can make a difference. Ask her.
Sometimes it's also wise to confide in one or two mothers of your child's playmates, or other adults in his life. This must be done with care, since your child deserves privacy and it isn't fair to gossip indiscriminately about his problems. (And it's usually more helpful in the long run if children work out their own difficulties.) But occasionally a sympathetic parent, who has most likely gone through similar experiences with her own clan, can offer additional insights.
When approaching other mothers, it's important not to lay blame or complain. ''I'm concerned about'' or ''I'd like your opinion'' are tactful openers that save face and allow an honest airing of the problem. Sometimes hostility and defensiveness will result, and discussion will be futile. But in most cases, adults who regularly deal with your child may have excellent ideas; they're a source you shouldn't overlook.
4. Be visible around your child's peer group. I haven't yet discovered why, but it's usually true - kids whose parents are openly involved in their activities seem to have an easier time making friends than those whose families never take part in anything. Perhaps a school lunchroom lady or scout leader becomes an extended authority figure, and children wouldn't dream of hassling her offspring; perhaps it's just that familiarity breeds a friendliness that spills over onto other members of the adult's family. But if your child feels like a social outcast, it's certainly worth a try.
Look for a volunteer job at your child's school that will bring you into contact with his peers. Learn their names, smile at them in the hallways, act as though you're glad your child has such a nice group of classmates. If job hours make school volunteering impossible, and you don't have the time or energy to coach sports or be a Brownie leader on weekends, make yourself visible in other ways. Be a helper or ticket-taker at a Friday night basketball game, play Frisbee in front of the house with the gang, attend events in which your child participates, and always try to meet his pals afterward - ''So you're Jimmy Smith. John told me how well you play the trumpet.'' (The kids will look at each other, roll their eyes and sigh in mutual disgust: ''Mothers! Honestly, aren't they embarrassing?'' But that's just what you wanted!)
It's a rare child who doesn't occasionally need help in making or keeping friends. Parents can provide some of that help, but our greatest contribution will come from our firm belief in our child's innate value. ''You are lovable'' - spoken and unspoken - is the message children need to hear as they struggle with social acceptance. Knowing they are treasured for their own sake, popular or not, gives them a firm foundation as they become part of the world at large - and part of the gang.