I sit and watch my two children interacting with other children, at the park, at Kindy, on play-dates. While the 1-year old is still into his own things, watching the others from time to time but not really interacting, my 3-year old seems to have some good friends, and talks about them a lot- when is X coming to my house? Is Y going to be at the park? It’s breathtaking to think that while they are still so little kids can learn to forge meaningful relationships, even when they are not able to communicate fully or express themselves always as easily as they would like.
Can toddlers really make friends? Surely, they are too young (or at least so busy defending their own toys) that they haven’t the time or energy to make friends?From the age of three or four, friendships can begin to take on real meaning for children – they begin to really connect and empathise with others.
Friendship transcends language. Whether friends speak the same language or not, children are able to make themselves understood, and do not give up as easily as an adult would do when put into the same situation. It can be hard for them, as I and my friends have found out when trying to get all our kids to play together. “Speak German now” becomes a common cry so as to include everyone, not just the English speakers. But in the end it doesn’t seem to affect how they manage with each other: the high and low moments occur with same- language and multi- language friendships, and the bonds grow every time they meet.
So, how can parents help their pre-schooler understand what it means to be a good friend, and build on the friendships they are beginning to forge with other children?
Special moments where friendships develop are often born out of a shared activity or experience. So setting up a potential ‘magic moment’ for children might do them a great favour. At this age children have only just started to play together (rather than playing alone or just alongside others) – so it’s a big breakthrough to start actually playing ‘with’ someone. Often just an inexpensive ‘something to do’ activity – such as giving them some balloons to throw to each other, or providing them with some paper, glue and a selection of cut-out shapes or pictures from old magazines – is enough to get a couple of children having some fun together. Sometimes it’s a catalyst for a tantrum- the wrong colour balloon or not enough scissors can be the cause for World War 3 to break out!
At this age they will probably only be able to focus on one activity for around 15 minutes. So, it’s a good idea to have plenty of things to do. Creative activities are often best: you could try play dough or painting/colouring-in activities too, pavement chalk and water games when the weather’s warm enough to go outside.
Teaching our children to ‘play nicely’ with others can be a constant battle. We want them to be kind to others and share their toys, yet in the back of our minds we want to know that they have the strength of character and confidence to stand up for themselves if needed. As a parent how do you help your child understand what it means to be a friend? Ultimately, how children learn to deal with difference and resolve conflict will come from the example the adults around them set. If children see their parents dealing with conflict and resolving it effectively, these essential life-skills will be passed down to them.
- Empathy begets empathy, so the way you speak to even a stranger when they come to the door, or respond to your child even when tired are how your child learns to model behavior and treat other people.
- Pay more attention to behavior you like and less attention to behavior you don’t like. Look for the things the children are doing right and comment on those.
- Show your child how to cooperate. Children love it when an adult has a problem and they can help solve it. If the play room needs cleaning up, say, “Let’s do this together. This is your room too. Let’s get it cleaned up so we can do something more fun after.”
- Help children learn to control their feelings and think of others. For example, if your child is having a hard time waiting for a turn on the swing, talk about it with her. It is more helpful to say something like, “I know you’ve been waiting a long time and you’re dying for a turn, but you’ll need to wait until X has finished. Maybe you can ride the trike while you’re waiting.” rather than simply saying, “You have to wait until X has finished.”
By teaching your own child to play with other children, you help them learn to express their own feelings, empathise with others’ feelings, and be cooperative, generous, and kind.