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Why and how to build a stronger parent community in your child’s program

It can be easy for parents to overlook bonding with other parents in a child care program: busy work schedules make it hard to socialize, plus, is there really a point when your child will only be in care for a few years?

The answer is yes, there certainly can be: Taking the time to get to know the parents in your child’s program benefits your child, you, and your school community. Ages two to five in particular, says Wonderschool early care and education mentor Neta Raz Studnitski, are the most critical for children’s social and emotional development.

“They start to realize that other people have emotions and points of view,” she says. “They’re not the center of the universe, and not everybody’s the same as they are. That’s how group play starts to evolve.” When parents put effort into getting to know each other, it models to children how friendships are made—and that it’s good for people from different backgrounds to get to know each other. Saying hello and chatting with other children’s parents, Studnitski says, shows children that “relationships do not need to be confined into one specific places—friends from school, friends from activities—that they can cross over to other realms in life.” This will make social transitions easier for your child when they begin kindergarten or join a team or camp with other children.

A warm and friendly parent network can also be a lifesaver for first-time parents. “Raising young children can be incredibly isolating and having community with people who are going through the same types of experiences as you can be very beneficial and supportive,” says Melissa Boshans, child development specialist at the LUME Institute in St. Louis. “Maybe you find someone who can help you with pick-up on a day that you work late, or someone who has great recipes for dinners that are delicious and that your kid will actually eat! Maybe you are struggling with bedtime and you find another parent who is also, and you share ideas. Knowing that you are going through the same things as other parents can be a great comfort.”

When parents put effort into getting to know each other, it models to children how friendships are made.

Child care programs and preschools benefit from happy parents and happy children when they facilitate inter-parent relationships with events like holiday parties or back to school nights where the entire family is invited, which gives parents a chance to get to know each other a little more than just a few words exchanged at pickup or dropoff. “Program administrators and staff can find creative ways to include working families in special events and after school programming by scheduling events to begin after regular work hours, and by providing childcare in the building for families attending educational events or volunteering,” says Boshans.

Putting parents in touch with each other via a Facebook group, app, or mailing list makes it easy for them to take the lead on organizing planning playdates, meetups or parties. It can help parents if teachers let parents know which children their child leans towards as candidates for future playdates.

Teachers can also give parents a chance to bond while helping the school: Ask parents to volunteer at the school, but, says Studnitski, “other than who’s coming when, they have to coordinate amongst themselves.” Boshans adds that while “having parents in the program space may seem daunting to some care providers, it is really the best way to help them understand your program and support it.” Parent crews can spend time together talking about their lives and their children while they plant a children’s garden, re-organize the library books, or help paint the toy shelves.

Don’t wait for the school administrators to take the lead, however. Parents can organize moms or dads nights out to get to know each other off the clock, but keep inclusivity and accessibility in mind. Make sure everyone is invited, and that they have a good chance of actually being able to attend.

“Can you find a place to meet up that doesn’t require driving, for families without reliable transportation?” suggests Boshans. “Choose a park over an expensive museum. Create a sign-up list for bringing food and snacks so that those who can contribute sign-up and share with everyone.” Also, steer away from spur of the moment fun: “The most annoying thing is when a room parent is like ‘Let’s meet tomorrow after school’ and everyone’s like, ‘I can’t go,’” says Studnitski. “If you plan two weeks ahead, at least you tried.”

It may feel like extra work to forge these bonds, notes Meg St-Esprit, a journalist and mother of three who says her family enjoyed a strong parents community at her children’s church-run preschool in Pittsburgh, which hosted socials and is located near a park where parents often met up. “It takes effort. If I sat on a bench zonked on my phone I wouldn’t get to know anyone. Though some days I did this, too, because some days that’s just all that was left in my tank, so no judgement.” Her children, now in kindergarten and second grade, still enjoy close friendships with some of their preschool friends. The preschool parent network, she says, “was also a bit of a precursor to things like PTO and being very involved in the elementary school.”

It’s okay if you’re a born introvert or simply don’t feel a connection with some of the other parents. “You don’t have to be friends with everybody,” says Studnitski. At the very minimum, however, she says, “being cordial and respectful of other parents teaches children the expected behavior. They mimic us. When we model good relationships, they will pick up on that.”

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Claire Zulkey

Claire Zulkey is a writer in Evanston, IL. She has reported on children, families and education for publications like the New York Times, Parents, and the University of Chicago Magazine