Kenny was the kid other kids loved to hate. The nine-year-old taunted, tattled, threw punches — whatever it took to get what he wanted. Yet deep down, what Kenny (not his real name) really wanted was friends, and he didn’t have a clue about how to make them.
But that was before he met “Dr. Bob” — psychologist Robert Myatt of UCLA’s Children’s Friendship Program — and learned the ABCs of social skills with a group of similarly friend-challenged kids.
Myatt, exuding an almost palpable enthusiasm, kept things going at a fast pace during a recent session of the 12-week program as Kenny and nine other boys tried their hardest to sit still for nearly an hour in a classroom in UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.
“Who wants to share about homework?” Myatt asked, his voice booming.
A half-dozen hands shot up. Week 4 homework was to make two 10-minute phone calls to potential new friends, using “detective work” questions to zero in on common interests.
Boasting about his phone call to a neighborhood boy, Kenny said, “I told Jack I went on Superman the Rollercoaster (at Six Flags amusement park), and he said he loves that ride!”
Psychologist Robert Myatt, a.k.a. "Dr. Bob," coaches and cheers kids on in learning the steps of making friends.
“High five, Kenny! I told you you could do it!” responded Myatt, generous with praise for everyone, from Chad, who discovered a common love of video games with one boy, to Sammy, who was surprised to find that the boy he called had a fluffy, white dog just like his.
More than 1,500 children have benefited from the Children’s Friendship Program since its beginnings in 1991. So have their relieved parents, who came to the program in deep distress about their unhappy offspring.
“He is always alone on the playground and doesn't have a single friend,” a parent might say, or, “Everybody in the class was invited to the birthday party except for my daughter.”
The friendship program is the creation of Director and Professor Frederick Frankel, a psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehaviorial Science at the David Geffen School of Medicine. It began with being witness to a playdate meltdown — when his 5-year-old son, who is now 25, refused to share his toys.
Professor Frederick Frankel, program director, came up with the concept for the friendship program after his son had a playdate meltdown.
What the research does show is that having friends has a significant impact on a child’s overall sense of self-esteem and well-being. One long-term study showed that people who had at least one or two good friends when they were 12 are much less likely to become lonely or depressed when they’re 22.
Frankel and Myatt collaborated to create the program, drawing on research that describes in detail the behaviors that children use in successfully making and keeping friends. Step-by-small-step, children learn everything from being a good host on a playdate to the fine art of “slipping in” to a group of kids at play.
“It’s not esoteric or mystical,” said Myatt.“It’s a clear skill set that has a high chance of making kids successful in social interaction.” Myatt serves as the program’s associate director along with social worker Cynthia Whitham.
Children in the program fall into the broad groups of “rejected kids” and “neglected kids.” Like Kenny, rejected kids — more boys more than girls — tend to be self-centered and inconsiderate. Neglected kids are shy, quiet, almost invisible to their peers. For some, difficulties stem from childhood disorders like Asperger Syndrome, in which intelligent kids have trouble picking up on social cues.
Social worker Cynthia Whitham helps parents helps their kids through the process.
From phone conversations with potential friends, the children move on to playdates, “a building block of children’s friendships,” according to Frankel, pointing to research that supports this. A study he recently published even shows that, among children with Asperger Syndrome, those who have more playdates at home are significantly better socially on the playground at school.
Aiming for a goal of five playdates by the program’s 12th week — and, ideally, finding two or three longer-term friends in the process — the children begin by learning how to be a good playdate host.
“The host is there to make sure the guest has a good time,” Frankel said. “The guest isn’t there to be your play slave.”
From letting the guest choose between root beer and orange juice to allowing them to have the first turn at a game, the goal is for the guest to have so much fun he can’t wait to play with the host again.
Yet another skill set comes into play in “slipping in” to a group playing kickball or jump rope during recess, Myatt explained to Kenny’s class.
“You can’t just walk in and say, ‘I’m playing.’ They’re going to think you’re bossy and rude,” Myatt explained, going on to lay out steps to do it the “right way”: “Arrive on the scene. Stop, look and listen, noticing things like the score and or if one of the teams is short a player. Throw out a compliment — ‘Good pass!’ And then look for an opening and ask, ‘Hey, can I play?’”
To reinforce the lesson, Myatt took the group to the top-floor deck of the Semel Institute to practice slipping into a make-believe game of soccer. But first he offered them a sobering statistic gleaned from research: Even when kids follow these exact steps, they will hear “the saddest word in the English language — ‘No’ — five out of 10 times.”
“The important thing is to know how to handle it,” he instructed. “Don’t pitch a wingding and start yelling, ‘I hate all you guys!’ Keep it cool … because tomorrow you might want to ask them again.”
With nearly 200 groups under his belt since the program’s inception, Myatt never tires of watching children’s friendship skills flourish.
“I love to see the enthusiasm that comes when, for the first time, a kid who felt helpless starts to see what to do,” Myatt said. “There are kids who weren’t even going out at recess who, by the end of the program, are out there asking to join games. They’re even being invited before having to ask.”
Added Whitham: “We all need friendships, even just two or three close friends — people to go through the good times with and share the hard times. It’s what makes our lives — and our children’s lives — rich.”
Find more information at the UCLA Parenting & Children's Friendship Program website or call (310) 825-0142. Learn more about the program in Frankel’s recently published book, "Friends Forever: How Parents Can Help Their Kids Make and Keep Good Friends" (Jossey-Bass, 2010).