How Toddler & Preschooler Friendships Really Work
Experts show how toddlers and preschoolers learn and benefit from early friendships.
Moving from Me to We
While relationships with other children can be interesting for infants and toddlers, the important adults in their lives far overshadow everyone else.
“Other children really are very secondary, and that includes siblings as well as same-age peers,” Dr. Goodstein says. “In fact, the parent is such a dominant component in a young child’s life that other children are almost an afterthought, I would say.”
Infants and early toddlers are highly self-centered creatures, and Dr. Caras says, “They’re a bundle of impulses and urges.” Slowly these little ones begin to interact more with the world of others. The following are examples of social milestones they’ll experience:
- At 16 to 18 months, children might begin to play next to peers.
- At 19 to 21 months toddlers can start to have a “sense of self,”
according to Dr. Caras, and often become more possessive of toys.
- From about 22 to 25 months, children understand themselves as separate people and start to use language to solve their problems, but they still do not engage in cooperative play.
- At approximately 30 months, children start to play with others in bits and pieces—it’s not simply parallel play anymore.
- Finally, around age three, children are fully ready for cooperative play, says Dr. Caras, and caregivers should encourage “plenty of playmates” to foster the beginnings of true friendships.
Laying the Groundwork
Parents can promote relationship skills in many ways. Often the best example comes from the parents forming secure attachments to their children and being friendly with others.
Playgroups and childcare settings are especially good for socializing toddlers and older infants. Such experiences “are instrumental in the development of the awareness that others have needs and wants,” Joynt says. “They are learning empathy and becoming socially acceptable beings.”
Spending time with other children also helps kids develop reasonable responses to frustration, such as using language instead of throwing a tantrum, according to Dr. Caras.
Imaginative play is another way of encouraging kids’ ability to play with others. “Parents need to be able to…go a little bit into the play world with the child, have that door open,” Dr. Sharma urges. “Encourage the fantasies, and don’t say, ‘That’s not real, that’s not how things happen.’” When two-year-olds pretend they are riding a rocket to the moon or concoct a conversation between two stuffed animals, they are building foundations for empathy and cooperation. Reading books and telling stories have a similar effect.
What Are They Thinking?
One of the most fascinating and difficult aspects of studying relationships among young children is that adults cannot tell exactly how these little kids feel.
“Friendship is a pretty complicated business,” says Dr. Goodstein. “We’re talking about kids who cannot truly discuss their inner lives or inner feelings.”
As a result, some researchers are aiming to jump inside children’s minds in new ways.
Sarah-Louise Moore, research assistant to Dr. Hay, says that most experiments on three-year-olds’ understanding of friendship have been heavily based on asking children questions: “For example, if you ask a toddler, ‘Why are you Jack’s friend?’ he or she will often reply, ‘Because I am.’”
However, in a 2004 study by Moore that used puppets, flashcards, and an illustrated book, three-year-olds demonstrated a more complex understanding of the affection underlying friendship, even giving ideas for how “fictional characters could make friends again after an argument,” according to Moore.
Such creative methods of investigating relationships could eventually lead to the discovery of reciprocal friendship in children younger than three, Moore says—giving us a new perspective into toddlers’ ever-changing minds and budding friendships.
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