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That’s What Friends Are For: The Beginnings of Friendship in Early Childhood

“You’re not coming to my birthday party!” In the world of three year olds, this is the ultimate threat. In my time in the classroom, I heard children throw this phrase around almost daily. It was prompted by a broken block structure, an unwillingness to share, a disagreement over what to play, or a myriad of other seemingly-trivial issues. The hurt child was making a point the way he or she knew how: “I am angry with you!” Amazingly, the argument almost never lasted more than two minutes. As I watched, the angry child navigated their tricky situation by either convincing his or her playmates to cooperate or finding another place to play and returning to these playmates later in the day. As the year progressed, children gravitated toward their peers who enjoyed similar types of play and who consistently behaved kindly toward them. I was lucky enough to witness real friendships forming.

Humans are social creatures. We naturally want to be around others and form bonds with similar individuals. Children begin to develop social skills from the moment they are born. Newborns learn to engage through eye contact and smiling. As babies grow into toddlers, they begin to realize who is a familiar or trusted individual and who is a stranger. My 18 month old daughter is in the midst of what we refer to as a “Mommy Phase”: clinging to me and burying her head when any unfamiliar person interacts with her. Interestingly, with this phase has also come a desire to be with other children her age and a connection with her familiar “friends”.

Because Hoboken is an amazing place for families, my daughter and I have had a close-knit group of moms and babies that we affectionately refer to as the “December Babies”. The children have “known” each other since they were about two months old. In that time, we’ve watched them grow from beautiful little blobs who stared at the ceiling next to each other, to wiggly infants who played side by side in their own worlds, to toddlers who show all the beginning signs of real friendship. Now when my daughter sees her friends a big grin spreads over her face and she jumps into familiar “play” with them. Of course, this play is still mostly solitary play with a happy awareness of a familiar peer close by. As toddlers mature into preschool-aged children, they begin to socialize more directly with other children by chatting with each other in play and playing with a common goal in mind.

Children reap enormous benefits from having unstructured socialization time with their peers. They’re able to navigate appropriate behavior through trial and error and practice “grown up” social problem solving. Imagine a little girl who snatches a toy from her playmate. In one scenario, her parents tell her “Don’t snatch. Please give it back and wait your turn.” In another, her playmate walks away to play with another child. The girl learns much more quickly from a real social consequence than she does by being reprimanded by an adult. Children learn remarkably quickly how to make and keep friends through their actions and words. As a teacher in the classroom, I’ve observed children who smoothly navigate their social environment with ease, using positive verbal interactions and modeling empathy to their peers. These children have more of a profound effect on the group dynamic than any type of instruction or modeling that I could provide for them. Unstructured peer-to-peer interaction forces children to use complex verbal skills to problem solve and achieve the ultimate goal: to continue to enjoy play with their friends. These skills cultivated from birth are the ones we strive to achieve even in adulthood.

How can parents and educators help children to form friendships? Exposure to other children is key. The more time a child spends interacting with his or her peers, the easier it will be to figure out what works and doesn’t work in a social situation. We as adults want everyone to “get along” all the time. We never want our child to be the cause of a problem and so we tend to intervene before it is truly necessary. Children don’t hold onto grudges or hurt feelings the way adults do. One minute, a playmate is “mean” and “not my friend anymore!” and the very next moment, they are happily back to playing again. While there are certainly times that adult intervention is necessary, children will often work it out on their own and both children will have grown in social knowledge from the interaction. If intervention is necessary, children learn best from adults modeling empathy for the hurt child. For example, “I’m sad to see that Tommy is crying. Why do you think he is so sad? What do you think we can do to make him feel better?” This type of conversation leads children to be their own problem solvers, think about the consequences of their actions, and learn to make amends. Through experimentation and practice, children develop meaningful friendships and enjoy the company of their peers.

Kristen Cronheim is a contributing writer for the Little Bee Learning Studio blog. She holds a BS from Cornell University in Human Development and a Masters in Early Childhood Education from Hofstra University. Kristen taught both PreK and Kindergarten for 5 years and created curricula devoted to play-based learning. She lives in Hoboken with her husband and daughter.

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