Every parent realizes the importance of friends in their children’s lives. For many parents, their children’s friends become a yardstick of how well they have taught their offspring the necessary social skills to form friendships.
I remember friends of mine whose son in his early years had one friend. No matter how much they coaxed him to engage with other children, this boy was adamant—this was the only friend he wanted to play with. His parents worried that there might be something wrong with their son. They felt he was anti-social and that they had failed as parents.
In her book, Friendfluence: The Surprising Ways Friends Make Us Who We Are, Carlin Flora notes, “…it’s a good thing that the majority of them [children] have at least one friend, because a big-picture conclusion of researchers is that friendship is essential to social and emotional development.”
I was curious to know why some children, like my friend’s son, feel content at a very early age with one close friend, and other children, like my son, starting in preschool seem to have and want a cadre of friends.
I wonder how much influence parents really have in the formation of a young child’s friendships or if temperament played a role. I asked Carlin to explain what she discovered.
1. What role, if any, do parents play in children’s first and early friendships?
A one-year-old who has the chance to interact regularly with other little ones will indeed choose favorite playmates—first friends. One study found that toddlers who entered a new childcare center with friends in tow adjusted better than those who went to a center where they had no pals. Parents can therefore provide a key role by consistently exposing their babies and toddlers to familiar playmates in their town and making sure some of them go to the same daycare or preschool. A new parent group is the perfect opportunity to do so, and provides a lot of support for the Moms and Dads as well.
2. Does parental attachment and warmth play a role?
Preschoolers who are securely attached to their mothers enjoy being with friends and cooperate with them more than those who are not securely attached. Affectionate, approving, and encouraging parents tend to have kids who are friendly with their peers. On the flip side, a lack of parental warmth is associated with socially maladjusted children. Summoning Goldilocks, researchers found that preschoolers whose parents are over-stimulating are more likely than others to face rejection.
3. You write in Friendfluence that young children have three basic behavioral tendencies that a parent can recognize fairly early on, as toddlers. What are they?
University of Maryland researcher Kenneth Rubin outlines three behavioral tendencies of kids that reveal themselves early on: to move toward other children, to move against other kids in an uninhibited way, and to move away from them, out of fear or other negative emotions. These orientations are dubbed normal, aggressive, and withdrawn, and they often predict a kid’s pattern of making friends.
Shy kids are more likely to have shy friends, and aggressive kids, if they can make friends at all, are more likely to have aggressive friends. Here at the nexus of personality and friendship is the origin of a difficult dynamic often called the Matthew effect, after the Bible verse declaring that those who have will get more and those who don’t will lose what little they do have. Shy kids influenced by shy friends are pushed deeper into their limited comfort zones, and forceful kids with brutish buddies are positively reinforced for impulsive behavior.
If the personality divide is breached by kids themselves, perhaps with a touch of encouragement from parents and teachers, the shy child can befriend a sensitive extrovert who coaxes her into new situations, and the aggressive kid can attach himself to a patient soul who teaches emotional regulation by example.
4. Given the mobility in our society, few children remain friends with their pre-school or even elementary school friends. But, what lessons from those first friendships help them form and maintain strong friendships when they are older?
It’s true that early childhood friendships are not usually stable. But those friendships not only help kids form friendships when they’re older, by teaching them empathy, story-telling, perspective taking, and how to adjust one’s own behavior to the situation at hand, but also help them become psychologically and cognitively healthy in other ways. For example, the sense of belonging that comes from having a friend boosts all-around psychological well-being. Having friends increases a child’s moral reasoning skills. And when she is disagreeing with a friend as opposed to a non-friend, a child evaluates the friend’s judgments more positively and is more willing to back down from her own position than she would be if she were at odds with a mere acquaintance’s stance. Since friendship gives kids the security to alter their points of view, it also sharpens their critical thinking skills.
5. Can a child who has one or two friends build the same foundation for later friendships as the child who has a group of friends?
Kids are concerned with friendship, of course, but the context within which most friendships develop is the peer group, to which kids are exquisitely attuned. Each peer group is driven by unspoken rules about how to act, what to wear, and which people in the group are to be revered and which are to be picked on or neglected. Fitting into this group in some way—not necessarily to be popular, but at least to find a niche and avoid the very negative psychological effects of being an outcast, is crucial to future success in many realms, not just future success with friendship. But the encouraging news is that most psychologists agree that one friend is all a kid really needs. Just one friend cushions a child against developing depression later on after being bullied, for instance. In fact, if a child has that one friend, she is less likely to be bullied in the first place. Also, an introverted child may feel perfectly satisfied with one close friend, while an extraverted child might need a broader circle to fulfill her needs for socializing.
Children are socialized in a group but ideally gravitate toward friends who help them manage the group while also offering a respite from its limited roles and codes. Should your child be having difficulties making friends, consider martial arts classes or another disciplined activity to help him better regulate his emotions. Children who cannot regulate their emotions often find the other kids will not want to befriend them.
For more suggestions and insignts from Carlin, I highly recommend Friendfluence: The Surprising Ways Friends Make Us Who We Are not only to understand and help your child’s development of early friendships, but also to discover what happens to friendships as children move through school. Ultimately, you will make surprising discoveries about your own friendships.
Flora, Carlin. Friendfluence: The Surprising Ways Friends Make Us Who We Are. New York: Doubleday, 2013.
Copyright 2013 by Susan Newman