How Toddler & Preschooler Friendships Really Work
Experts show how toddlers and preschoolers learn and benefit from early friendships.
Understanding Relationships Among the Littlest of Friends
From the time he could say their names, my son talked continuously about two of the children in his family-style childcare. They were both older, nearly three as compared to his 18 months. By the end of the year he had merged their names into one from frequent use. My son seemed more subdued on the days when one of them was sick, and he gave each of them a hug when they arrived in the morning. Of course I called them his friends.
But do toddlers really have friendships? Do they wrap their minds around relationships in the same way older children and adults do? Not exactly, experts say.
It’s popular among parents to believe that six-month-olds in a playgroup are having fun with their “friends,” says Dr. Sarghi Sharma, MD, assistant professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. These youngsters can engage with each other to some extent, but they are not interested in each other in the same way that adult friends are.
Give-and-take, cooperative friendship does not generally exist until around age three, according to the child psychologists, pediatricians and childcare providers interviewed. But children can and do express preferences for other kids long before then.
Noticing Early Preferences
Before they are able to confide in a friend at age three or four, children often seek the company of like-minded others. Yet it is not always clear why certain children gravitate toward each other. Factors that attract kids to each other might include size, familiarity, character traits, or even the shapes of their faces—but no one is quite sure.
“It’s always fun to watch children when they’re in a childcare setting, and the teacher will say, ‘Those two are lovebirds,’ and you just don’t know why,” says Judy Joynt, infant and toddler faculty member at the Center for Montessori Teacher Education in White Plains, New York. Children are able to connect this way once they can walk with their hands free. To show their affection, according to Joynt, the children might hold hands, hug each other, sit side-by-side at lunch, or pass toys back and forth.
“Preferences for familiar peers” have shown up by the age of 12 months among children who are cared for together, says Dr. Dale Hay, PhD, professor in the School of Psychology at Cardiff University in Wales. These interactions can provide “a firm foundation” for future friendship.
But keep in mind that no one is born with a blank slate, says Dr. Charles Goodstein, MD, psychoanalyst and professor of psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine. Humans are born with the beginnings of character traits that develop over the years, according to Goodstein, and toddlers might express preferences based on level of aggression or activity.
“Earlier on, children are going to select other playmates more by temperament and disposition” as well as proximity, says Dr. Gordon Caras, PhD, an adult, child and adolescent psychologist and psychoanalyst in Solana Beach, California. “Some children who are more responsive to being overstimulated are going to shy away from the children who are more active.”
Parallel play, in which children play near each other but independently, often happens among toddlers of similar ages and abilities. And sometimes a sweet companionship arises between children who are a year or so apart in age, creating a motherly or nurturing relationship, Joynt says.
“It’s actually probably the best of both worlds, because the younger child is very eager to explore and to learn, and the older child is setting some modeling behaviors,” says Dr. Sharma, adding that at the same time, the older child enjoys showing mastery and setting the pace.
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