It's Tuesday morning—time for my two-year-old daughter's weekly play date with her friend Madeline. The girls greet each other at the door with an enthusiastic "Hi!" but within minutes, they beeline to opposite sides of the room. After that, except for the occasional tug-of-war over a toy, they hardly notice each other until it's time to say goodbye.
Madeline's mom and I exchange a frustrated sigh. We keep hoping that our charming, chatty, book-loving daughters will bond, but so far, they seem more interested in each other's toys than each other.
Is age two too soon for children to start building friendships? Are play dates a waste of time for toddlers? Not at all, says Cathi Cohen, LCSW, a Fairfax, Virginia-based therapist specializing in children's relationships and author of Raise Your Child's Social IQ. "In the toddler years, and even in infancy, you're setting the stage for socialization," she says. "You're helping your child learn the social cues she'll need for making friends."
For some children, making friends comes as naturally as breathing; but for many, it's a learned skill gradually acquired over time. You can help by offering gentle, age-appropriate guidance—and lots of opportunities to practice the positive behaviors that will make your child a welcome member of his or her peer group, right from the start.
Baby and Toddler Buddies
By the time your baby is just a few weeks old, he's already starting to pick up social cues. You'll notice that he tries to capture and hold your attention by smiling, giggling, and cooing—and he does this more with his parents and siblings than with strangers. Already, some people are more important to him than others.
Actual friendships, though, are fleeting during the baby and toddler years. "Friendships are very situational at this age," Cohen says. "It's 'I'm here and you're here, so you're my friend.'"
Don't worry if your toddler doesn't actually play with his playgroup buddies. At age two, you'll still see what's called "parallel play" —children playing near each other rather than with each other. It's still beneficial for your child to be around other children, to see how they move and relate and share the same space, Cohen says. That's how children begin learning how to get along with their peer group. Around age three, they'll start actively engaging each other.