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Helping Young Children Understand and Build Friendships

Starting early helps even the less social of our children become good friends

The Goddard School
Source: The Goddard School

When our son, JD, was three, his preschool director told us that he started his days well enough, but he kept an eye on the door for new arrivals and “got it into gear when Jessie arrived.” They couldn’t wait to play “ocean” – their name for the make-believe adventures they had in pretend boats. Jessie’s parents agreed with us that this was one of the best things about preschool, though we both needed to work with each of them and the teachers to include other kids who wanted to play with them.

As this anecdote shows, play, from early in our lives, creates the vocabulary of friendship. Some parents think social skills come first and then play follows, but it’s actually the reverse, and helping our children learn how to play is usually harder than it sounds. Temperament, age, and gender all affect our children’s skill and appetite for playing with (potential) friends. For some preschoolers, turn-taking, sharing, negotiating and managing conflict comes easily (often for those with older siblings or easy temperaments), and for others, it’s hard to fathom (such as first-born or only children, or shy children), and all of it’s normal. Friend-making actually begins around 18 months, when toddlers’ sense of self emerges, introducing the idea that not everyone feels or is the same. When they find someone that “gets them,” like Jessie and JD, special buddy relationships can form. But they can be short-lived, given the limits of empathy and delay of gratification skills in such young kids. By four they are better, at least briefly, at taking another’s perspective. By five, their curiosity about others strengthens, and they may experiment with striking out on their own for a new play partner.

For boys, doing stuff together, active stuff usually, is at the center of friendships. By preschool, girls are starting to form emotional connections to their friends that are quite meaningful. Around this time, friendships trend toward being gender-exclusive (there are exceptions, of course - JD and Jessie are still close a decade later). Given these developmental variables, here are a few ways parents can help their children build friendships.

  • Model and teach friendly communication. Encourage cooperative decision-making, turn-taking and conflict management with siblings at home while teaching them good sportsmanship by playing board games with them.
  • Help with logistics. Arrange play or local park dates with a variety of children. Starting with neutral spaces works better, because there are no “special toys” they would have trouble sharing. Monitor the date from a reasonable distance so that you can help the children deal with rough spots (not sharing, “my turn,” “I was here first,” etc.) if they occur. Don’t make the play dates too long. Better to leave the children hungry for more than fed up.
  • Help them fit into friendship community. Both teachers and parents tend to overlook each other as resources in the friendship domain. Parents should talk to teachers about their children’s friendships, which many teachers are reluctant to do unless asked, and then parents know which relationships to support. Also, when children are moving to other classrooms within the program, feel free to advocate for your child’s friendships to be given consideration. It’s hard enough to make good ones, and classrooms generally benefit from their preservation.

Dr. Kyle Pruett is a Clinical Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine and Educational Advisory Board member for The Goddard School, an early childhoodeducation franchise and leading preschool teaching learning through play (