Friends are there to celebrate the joyful times, to give support during sad times, and share one another’s experiences throughout life. According to psychiatrist Dr. Saul Levine, “A key finding from a major study of adults’ lives was that those who had close, long-term friends fared better than those who were less social. Close friendships enhanced moods and functioning as well as emotional and physical health.”
Clearly, having strong friendships has a positive impact on adult lives. However, the ability to form and keep friendships begins to develop very early in life. Even babies are primed to form friendships. A baby will naturally respond to a caregiver’s voice and will imitate sounds and facial expressions from an early age. When a caregiver responds to the baby’s babbling sounds, the infant is encouraged to continue to communicate, developing a sense of self. This is a child’s first model for the give-and-take of social interaction and sets them on the path towards being able to develop bonds with their peers.
During the early toddler months (about 12 months through two years), mutual liking and attraction is the basis of friendship. Toddlers are learning about their world and how to relate to other people. They enjoy being near their peers and watching others although they tend to play alongside others rather than with them.
Older toddlers (around three years) begin to develop an understanding of order and sequence which gives them the tools to begin taking turns. They start to share their toys and look forward to playing with other children. However, they still have some difficulty seeing things from another child’s point of view, so friendships are still fleeting at this point.
By the time children reach preschool they’re actively developing friendships during play while continuing to build skills that will help them to establish friendships now and in the future. These skills include not only taking turns but also cooperating, listening to others, and negotiating different views and perspectives. For example, preschool children might engage in pretend play by acting out being a family, and they will have to decide which roles to take and what to do. If they all want to be the mom or the baby, or if they entertain different ideas about what each role does, then they must discuss, negotiate, and work things out. This all leads to stronger abilities to interact positively with peers and form lasting friendships.
When children engage in a variety of activities and means of communication, they develop the flexibility to be able to successfully navigate a range of social groups and situations. At The Learning Experience®, a broad array of activities and playmates exposes children to variety in their play experiences, and as a result, we are often the place where lifelong friendships begin. Collaborative interest centers promote positive and diverse interactions with peers. Also, our Manners Matter® program helps children learn the social skills they will need to build lifelong friendships, such as taking turns, sharing, using kind words, and considering the feelings of others.
There are many ways that you, as a parent, can help your child develop the skills he or she needs to form lasting friendships The key is to give your children ample opportunities to interact with peers and to practice their social skills by:
- Arranging for children to meet and play at a park or in one another’s homes, and coach your child on how to interact positively with peers.
- Playing games with your child, showing how to win and lose gracefully.
- Giving your child and friends options for play. For example, ask, “Would you like to play with blocks, or with cars?”
- Setting a time limit for playdates. When children get tired, they find it harder to be cooperative.
Finally, it is important to be patient. It takes time for a child to master the skills needed to be a good friend. Children will continue to grow and develop their social skills in each social interaction that they have. If you serve as your child’s positive model and coach, he or she will have a terrific example to follow and will be on the way to making friendships that flourish.