As kids grow, the ground rules of friendships develop and change. Learning these “laws” can help us understand and support our children’s social lives so we can be there when they need us.
Friendship begins at babyhood. A child’s first best friends are usually his parents. By the time kids can crawl, they start meeting other kids. Early play remains parallel. Around age three, children become able to play with each other and form deeper friendships, although parallel play still continues. By age eight, friends take up a lot of children’s interests and energy. It doesn’t mean your children don’t love you, but it does mean you have diminished in your stature as top friend.
Friendship is the gold of childhood. Kids discover it themselves, and it’s incredibly precious. Other things in life are imposed — school, bedtime, what’s for dinner — but friends are something kids choose for themselves.
Children maintain limited numbers of friends. Kids generally have from one – ten “important” friends at a time, with an average of about five. And not all of these friendships will last, even when the parents are best friends.
Each child has his own friendship temperament. Your child may be naturally shy, naturally outgoing, or even naturally bossy. Your child may like trios, large groups or being one-on-one. And your child may have a very different friendship temperament than you. While you can’t necessarily change your child, you can encourage him to stretch — a bit.
Conflicts with close friends are inevitable. Tensions arise at every age and stage, but the ability to resolve conflicts independently develops as kids get older. “Kids actually experience more conflicts with close friends than with acquaintances,” says Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D. “At first that might seem weird, but if you think about it, you can get over what an acquaintance says, but what a friend says and does really matters. And because you are friends, you are motivated to work it through.”
Trios can truly be trying. It is a big developmental step to move from playing with one friend to playing with two friends at the same time. Often, there’s an odd person out, so like the uneven legs of a stool, a trio sometimes tips over into conflict and disappointment. Therefore, some kids do very well in trios, but others prefer to be one-on-one or in larger groups.
Most children prefer to play with kids of the same gender in school. While babies and toddlers don’t generally discriminate over the sex of their playmate, once kids enter preschool, many prefer friends of the same sex. However, outside of school, many kids maintain opposite sex friendships. “It’s important to encourage friendships with kids of the opposite sex. This is something to be nurtured and your child will value and enjoy it, particularly because she may not do this at school,” notes Diane Levin, Ph.D., Professor of Education at Wheelock College.
By age ten or eleven, boys and girls become interested in each other. As kids begin puberty, platonic boy-girl friendships begin to form. Socializing often occurs in groups rather than one-on-one. Girls often spend time talking about boys, who are generally a little more awkward and wonder how to relate to girls. Many schools will start sex education in the 4th grade and recommend parents begin discussing sex with their children in appropriate ways at home. “As kids approach puberty, parents should talk about sex and set up the right kinds of guidelines for social interaction. Inviting groups of boys and girls to your home (and maintaining a reasonable level of supervision) is a good way to encourage safe socializing that kids and parents will feel comfortable with,” notes Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D.
Many children experiment with social power. By the time kids are four or five years old, many discover that excluding or teasing someone makes them feel powerful and they find this exciting. Kids also test their powers to see how effective they are. A four-year-old might invite a group to go to the swings and wait to see how many follow. A six-year-old might start the “I hate Josh club,” or tell other kids “not to talk to Marion today.” At ten, power plays occur over who has the most friends, or by “stealing” friends.
Children care about being popular, but friendship rules. “From about 2nd grade through high school, being popular becomes important to many children. But friendship is the thing that endures,” advises Cohen. “A friend wants you to be yourself and likes you for who you are. While not being in the “in crowd” might seem devastating, encourage your child to simply make good friends. Help him nurture those friendships and the crisis over not being in the cool group should subside.”