Several years ago, we began construction on a new church building. In the beginning, the workmen dug a big pit in the ground and then they began to pour footings. Footings are cement piers upon which the entire building rests. They are crucial to the strength of the finished structure. After the foundation hole is dug, the footings must be poured quickly, before the composition of the soil is changed by the wind, air, or water.

In a similar way in the brief early years of a child’s life, parents have the challenging job of laying the foundation that will support family friendships in later years. Here are eight “foundation builders” to help parents as they seek to cultivate strong friendships with their young children.

1. Hug them and praise them.

Physical affection and verbal affirmation are necessary in laying a strong foundation for friendship. Hug, hug, hug. Even if you were not raised in a hugging family, hug your kids anyway. They need the warmth of physical contact and so do you. From gently rocking the tiny infant to hugging a preadolescent, physical touch communicates love and provides security. Encourage your kids to hug each other as well. Let them begin by holding a newborn brother or sister.

Say “I love you” and say it often. When we talk with our children, it’s meaningful if we look them in the eyes. So squat down to their level when you truly want to communicate with them, and let them know that what you are saying to one another is important. Praise them for little things. “That was so nice when you complimented your brother for the pretty picture he drew.” Praise them for big things. “You did such a good job helping me clean up.”

2. See discipline as an asset.

A young child will try to manipulate and be in charge. He will attempt to get his own way. While the child may not be consciously trying to control, this is what he is doing. A wise parent must not permit this to happen. Letting a child manipulate or control puts an awful, unfair burden on the child. Firm discipline relieves a child of this burden and builds respect for the parent. When a child respects his parents, he will also respect others.

Firm discipline and love aren’t opposites, but today many well-meaning parents are unintentionally acting as if they are. Some of these parents have come from abusive homes in which the discipline was overwhelming or even cruel. To them, any kind of discipline is abusive. In an effort to not repeat the mistakes of their parents, they have thrown out discipline and instead attempt to placate the child. There is no way you can reason with a strong-willed 2-year-old. Your toddler must learn that “no” means “no” and not “maybe, if you fuss enough.” If you want to build a friendship with your child, firm discipline is essential, especially in the early years.

3. Create routines.

Routine and discipline are related, for routine begins with a regularly scheduled event and the repetition, time after time, of that event. Discipline, too, is the repetition of many small acts until they become ingrained as part of the way in which a child relates to the world. Small children need a schedule—a routine. Schedules build confidence in children because they know what to expect and when to expect it.

A daily schedule with toddlers might be: breakfast with the parents, playtime alone, snack or lunch, nap, afternoon outing, playtime with a parent, dinner, storytelling, bedtime.

Schedules differ in each household, but the emphasis should always be on trying to have a daily routine. Sometimes this might not be possible, but as much as you can, set up a routine. Scheduling will make your life easier and will teach your children the benefits of discipline.

4. Cultivate laughter.

One of the things I most want my children to remember is laughing together. As we learn to laugh at ourselves, we will help our children learn to laugh at themselves. Once I made a birthday cake from scratch for John. The flour had bugs in it and I used the wrong kind of oil. It was lopsided, sprinkled with bugs, and gross tasting. But he made the whole situation so funny that we all laughed and dubbed it “Mom’s famous recipe—made once.”

Our humor should be positive and not filled with sarcasm. It’s too easy to fall into a cynical, sarcastic type of humor that is destructive. Laugh at yourself and pray for a sense of humor in your home.

5. Stay close to teachers.

Many elementary schools have parent/teacher conferences near the beginning of the year. This is a wonderful opportunity to get to know the teacher who will be influencing your child for the next school term.

Seek to build positive relationships with your child’s teachers. Ask how you can be supportive of them. And let them know that you want them to call with any concerns they have about your child. Tell them you are interested not only in your child’s academic development, but in his or her character development as well.

We once had a teacher phone us because she felt our twins were being unusually cliquey with certain friends while leaving others out. I appreciated her call, and we began to work together with the girls to overcome this tendency. It was a valuable learning experience for all.

Go on field trips with your child’s class. One dad in our community tries to go on most of the field trips in which his kids participate. It enables him to be in their world, observing them with their friends, and it gives him a common interest with his kids.

6. Be where they are.

The license plate said, “My Home.” And that’s the way many of us feel during the carpooling years—as if we live in the car. But that’s not all bad. The car is a great place to listen to your children talk with their friends. You can hear things you would never hear when talking to them alone. Your car can be a research lab if you take time to listen and ask good questions. You can learn who did the “baddest” thing and who spit at whom. You can discover who likes whom and what teacher is the “meanest.” You can pick up on attitudes and trends, information that they are accumulating that is “right on,” and misinformation that needs to be corrected.

When we take our children and other kids to a park and watch them interact, we get to know our own children and their friends in even more ways. Do our children initiate games or feel more comfortable following others? Do they like constant activity or quiet playtime? Are they risk takers or fearful when trying new things? Do they laugh easily or are they more serious?

Parents need to build friendships with their children’s friends. In this way they come to truly understand their own children. It’s not hard to build those friendships. Tell your daughter’s friend you like her haircut. Ask your son’s friend what his favorite sport is. Cheer for your children’s friends and tell your children what you appreciate about their friends. (I appreciate the twins’ friend Christina, who always smiles and gives me a hug.)

If you appreciate and work at getting to know your children’s friends when they are young, the teenage years will be much easier. You will already know most of them and your children will be accustomed to having you relate with their friends.

7. Share your life with them.

Children know that their parents are not always right. No one is. What they need is parents who are willing to be truthful and admit their mistakes. They need parents who recognize their own need for God.

Perhaps you grew up in a home where there was no spiritual training. As a result, it seems awkward to pray with your young children. Children can ask questions about spiritual matters that even Solomon might have had trouble answering. When you feel inadequate in answering their question or uncomfortable praying with them, simply be honest. Tell them that there is a lot you don’t know yet. The two of you will have to try to find the answers together.

Another way to deepen communication with your children is to practice asking deeper questions:

“Can you tell me one thing that made you feel happy today?” “Joannie, if you had a friend who wanted to copy answers from your paper, what would you do?” “Why do you suppose God wanted people to ‘remember the Sabbath’?”

8. Keep a long-range perspective.

The construction on our church building left a big, muddy hole on our grounds. It was ugly, it was yucky, and it was hard to imagine a beautiful new church building full of people singing glorious hymns on the site. Progress crawled. It rained and rained and no work could be done. Building materials were delayed, and when they did arrive, they were often the wrong materials or cut to the wrong dimensions.

Finally, the project was progressing. Then, by mistake, someone drove a stake through a major pipe. Water poured out everywhere and the floor had to be redone. Discouragement came easily. The workers had to laugh, press on, and keep the final picture in mind.

Parents of young children sometimes feel much like those workers. We work and work and don’t see much progress. Or make progress in one area and then have a setback in another. It’s easy to lose our perspective and become discouraged. We have to remember that we are laying the foundation for a child’s future life and friendships, and it can be a tedious process. Our children are tender shoots full of the promise of great things. As we gently train and steer them, we need a long-range perspective.

In a way, these early years are similar to taking out a savings bond. We put much into our children’s lives, but we don’t see much return on our initial investment for several years. In the same way we expect our monetary investments to pay off in the future, we have to remember we are building for our children’s futures.

When we feel discouraged, we need to remember that our heavenly Father loves our children even more than we do, and He knows our shortcomings. He will gently train us as we train them, and we will all grow in mutual dependence upon Him.

Copyright © 2004 by Susan Yates. All rights reserved. Used by permission.