Ah, friends … you can’t live with them, you can’t live without them. They are a complex part of our lives.

They can make us happy, sad, irritated and a whole page of adjectives that define who we are. Children’s first encounter with friends outside the world of their parents is in the pre-K and kindergarten environment.

It’s an interesting scenario and is the groundwork for future relationships.

I have been a K3/K4 teacher with Waukesha Catholic for 11 years. I am also the parent of three former 3- and 4-year-old children. Kidworld is an amazing place full of trial and error.

This trial and error is a necessary part of development. This is how they learn. A majority of the first weeks of school are spent “trying on” friends.

It’s like trying on shoes … you try one, and it doesn’t fit right, so you try another. That one doesn’t fit the way you like, so you try another. You keep trying on shoes until you find a few pairs that you like. Now you have some shoes that you like that fit nicely. You have some boots that don’t fit the best, but you still wear them on occasion. You have some trendy ones that you like sometimes, but you never hate them. Your closet contains a nice assortment of shoes … some you wear all of the time, some you wear some of the time.

It’s the same way with friends in pre-K and kindergarten. The kids spend the beginning of the school year playing with a variety of friends, finding ones with whom they are compatible. They find there are more assertive friends, there are some quiet friends, there are bossy friends, there are physical friends and the list goes on.

They learn which friends to hang around with (comfy shoes) and which friends to avoid (stilettos with pink leopard print) and which friends are surprisingly fun to be with (black wedge shoes).

I try not to interfere with their friend selection at this point, because I want it to be their selection, and allow them to decide which “shoes” fit the best. Sometimes adults intervene too much and the child is unable to make choices on his or her own. Of course, the intervention becomes necessary when inappropriate behaviors and actions arise in the friendship. More times than not, children successfully choose friends that are a good fit for them, but it does come from trial and error.

Once we are into the routine of school, we talk about appropriate behaviors to use with our friends. I emphasize we use kind words and actions because it shows respect for our friends regardless of what kind of shoe they are.

It is our responsibility to use good manners because we are part of a community, whether it is the school community, home community, social community or church community. We are reverent when we try to live as Jesus did.

How do we do that for children at such a young age? Example, example, example! We, as adults, need to model good manners and behaviors in front of our kids. They are watching you more than you think.

I have had students mimic their parents on the phone. Gossiping and bad-mouthing are the easiest to do, and the hardest to stop. Young children witness that and turn it into, “You can’t play with us,” or “I don’t like your new shoes,” or the big one … “You can’t come to my birthday party” regardless of when the birthday actually takes place.

I call them “hurting words.” Kids need to be corrected, or even put into a reverse role by asking them, “How do you think your brother felt when you called him “stupid”? They need to be accountable for their hurting actions. The more we correct and prevent hurting words and actions now, the easier it will be in the upper grades.

You’re saying that it’s everywhere. Kids will always be mean. Maybe so, but can’t we at least prevent it on a small scale? If we start teaching children at a young age to respect their peers, regardless of what kind of “shoe” they are, perhaps we have prevented some form of aggressive behaviors in the future. It starts with us. Here. Now.

As important as it is to raise a respectful child, it’s equally important to raise a child who can empower a situation. This simply means “standing up for yourself.” It does not mean to duke it out by the sand table, but it does mean for a child to have the confidence to say, “You know, you hurt my feelings. I don’t like that. Please stop.”

Studies indicate that when a child makes the aggressive child accountable for his or her actions, he or she is more likely to stop. By taking the matter into his or her own hands, the child is trying to solve the problem on his or her own. I have seen it in action; it really works!

Children also need to have the courage to come to an adult and to let the adult know that they tried to solve it on their own. It’s not a tattle – it’s informing. A tattle is when you try to get someone in trouble. Informing is letting an adult know that someone hurt our hearts or bodies.

Our children need to be able to stand up to situations by using appropriate strategies taught to them by the people they know and trust the most. This skill will even allow a child to stand up for another child who can’t stand up for themselves, which is a crucial part of our faith. It all ties together with the greatest Teacher by our side.

Learning these skills at a young age creates a confident child who is neither aggressor nor the victim, but a child strong enough to stand up for themselves and others. These are important characteristics that they will carry with them through a lifetime of trying on different shoes.

(Campbell, a mother of three, is a teacher at Waukesha Catholic. She and her husband, Deacon Scott Campbell, are members of St. William Parish, Waukesha)