Though it might be nice, we are not born knowing how to be good friends. Like just about everything else, it’s something we learn. In the context of friendships, from a very early age, we learn about sharing and give and take, and fun and joy and sadness, and everything in between. As parents we need to take an active role in coaching our children through early friendships to learn those lessons.
Your child’s earliest friendships likely will be in the context of you and your friends – children of your friends or acquaintances or other members of a playgroup. Some of these early friendships may endure, and some may not. Sometimes what you see (or they see) as “friendship” may just be successful parallel play. No matter what the context, regular talking about friendships – and more than just, “Be nice,” or, “Share” – can help kids learn early some basic and long lasting friendship skills.
Leading by example
As with many aspects of parenting, one of the most important ways you can teach your child about friendships is by example. If your child sees your strong bonds with your friends, female or male, and sees you acting with respect and kindness, that’s the behavior your child will seek to emmulate. The adage, “If you want a friend, be a friend,” can be adpated perfectly to demonstrating healthy friendships to your kids.
Being a relationship coach
However, no matter how well-exampled friendships are for your child, your child will still go through some trial and error in figuring it out for themselves. It can be frustrating for your child, and frustrating to watch – so why not consider yourself a relationship coach for your child’s developing friendship?
Younger kids need consistent supervision when playing with other children. As a parent you can take these supervision opportunities to really observe how your child is interacting. You might make some suggestions in the moment to the friends about sharing more constructively or some such, or you can talk to your child afterward about how the play went – and perhaps suggest some ways a friend engages another friend more, and things like that. Introducing concepts about friendship early, even to preschoolers, can set the stage for some very strong friendships for life. Communication is key.
Respect different personalities
At early ages, it’s easy for simple misunderstandings to occur. Children at the same age can be at different developmental stages, may use language differently, or other situations, and these are all circumstances you can coach your child through, helping him or her understand the friend dynamic. But sometimes, just as with adults, personalities just plain clash; not all pairings end up as friends!
Sometimes you have to help your child identify that a hoped for friendship isn’t quite going to happen. Perhaps friendship will happen later, or the kids will be simple acquaintances henceforth – and your child may need help understanding that that’s okay. In this way, you can start talking to your child about healthy relationships and making sure that close friendships are strong and mutually supportive.
Young kids need help and supervision in developing and maintaining friendships. Whether or not your child’s toddler-aged friend is a friend for life or a friend for right now, teaching friendship skills early can help all of you feel more comfortable with your child’s friend relationships for the long haul.?
More tips on your child’s first friendships: