The Stages of Friendship
“The early stages of friendships are evident prior to preschool,” says Dr. Handwerk. Such is the case with Kristina Roland’s one-year-old son. “[He] would get very excited to see [his peer] Jake every morning when he would go into daycare,” says Roland, who lives in Windsor Locks, Connecticut. “He had some kind of connection to this child in particular.”
As children develop more skill and autonomy, between the ages of two to five, they feel more free and willing to develop friendships. This is when children relate to each other through parallel play. At a playdate, your son may be playing with the blocks while his friend plays with the fire trucks. They may share limited verbal communication and physical interaction. It may not look like they are playing together, yet they are learning by being near each other and imitating one another as they play.
“For the preschool child, friendships provide a laboratory to learn to read basic social cues,” says Dr. Jensen. Children this age are learning to interact with other kids who have different ideas than them, forming the basis for cooperation and negotiation, and stimulating their developing brains by being presented with something other than their own thoughts of what should be happening.
“From age five to seven is when most children start to form intimate relationships with friends, and primarily with the same sex,” says Dr. Handwerk. This is the age when they become less dependent on their parents and more dependent on input and socialization with friends. At this age, boys may engage other boys at the playground and may even cooperate and plan games with them.
But by the end of the preschool years, children should be freely selecting friends on the basis of shared interests and activities. Many parents find that boys' friendships are more orientated around groups and common activities. Just as men tend to base friendships on shared interests, such as sports or work, boys seem to choose friends who like the same things as they do.
“First friendships can be either sex—anyone to play with,” recalls Barbara Gokey, of her personal experience with her son’s friendships. “As they get older and do sports and other physical things, they tend to pick other boys to be with. As they grow mentally, they tend to be closer to those friends that have similar interests though they don't abandon all the others,” says the Enfield, Connecticut mom.
However, warns Dr. Handwerk, “Girls [beginning at about preschool age] tend to be a half year to one year more mature in all socialization domains, including friendship.” So don’t be too concerned if your son’s age and ability don’t match these age guidelines.