tips for growing friendships ages 0 to 3

Have you seen the wonderful children’s book, Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss and illustrated by Maurice Sendak? One page shows the same boy meeting different children – each of whom is less pleasant than the next. There is one who frowns, one who is a “close talker,” one who is snooty, and a baby who bites his finger. The text reads: “The minute you meet some people, you know you will hate their mothers.”

It’s easy to feel as if our child’s social skills are a reflection on us. Sharing, turn-taking, “making friends”—all of these milestones are ways we tell ourselves that we are doing a good job. The reality is that the process of developing social skills is like a trip back to the Wild West: lots of drama, adventure, and the occasional stand-off. Here are some tips for navigating first friendships from birth to three.

Familiarity breeds friendships. A consistent, familiar group of peers helps children build early friendships. For many children, this is the child care setting. When my daughter was five months old, she and another baby would roll toward each other to get closer (and they are still friends today, 12 years later). A play group, regular visits from family, or neighborhood friends serve the same purpose.

Know there’s only one Steven Spielberg—and you’re not him. Ever been tempted to direct your child’s play? Remember that you can bring two children together, but you can’t make them friends. I learned this lesson after repeated play dates with my son (then 2½) and another child—each meeting was a bigger failure than the one before. Finally I realized: if my son could decide that he liked ketchup on his carrots, he could also decide who he wanted to play with. Even young toddlers have preferences and will click better with some peers over others. (Just like, ahem, grown-ups.)

Understand how social skills unfold. Babies show interest in one another while young toddlers will happily watch another child’s play, play next to a peer and imitate another child. By three, children begin playing interactively with peers. Sharing and turn-taking are slower to develop (about age four). Put it all together and you see a toddler who is fascinated by the boy next to her, but who screams and cries when she has to “share” one of her trains with him.

And the trouble with “sharing” … Too often, toddlers get the message that anytime they are playing with a toy, another child can come over to “share” and the toy immediately gets taken away. Instead, help children learn to share by teaching them how to say, “Can I have that when you’re done?” (Or just “Done yet?”) When a child has finished playing, prompt her to give the toy to the asking peer. By experiencing both ends of the transaction, your toddler learns about turn-taking. In the meantime, offer another toy as a distraction.

Conflict is good…and normal. Adults often feel the need to step in during peer conflicts to make sure things are “fair” or to enforce “nice” behavior. Children see conflicts differently, as interruptions to play and not personal insults. When you can avoid stepping in (unless a safety issue like hitting is involved), most toddlers will resolve the conflict themselves and move on. For example, if a child snatches a toy car from a peer, the other child will usually snatch it back or find another. Conflict resolved, play resumes.

Know your child. A child’s temperament—how they experience the world—will affect their social skills. More intense children and children who are slow to warm up or less flexible may find social situations challenging because they are chock-full of change, intensity, and in-your-face interactions. Knowing your child’s temperament helps you prepare her for these moments. The research shows that parents who help their children manage challenging social situations (rather than avoid them) raise children who are more resilient.

Number of friends doesn’t matter. One of my children has a ton of friends and one has a few close buddies. Both are happy.

Social skills take a long time to develop, from toddlerhood through the teen years. Taking this long view means understanding that our children will both make friends and lose friends, be the comforter and be the aggressor, be the leader and be the follower. We are not our children, but we are our children’s guide along this journey—a journey that ends years from now, when we look at a joyful, dynamic young adult and realize, “I’m so glad we’re friends.”

About Rebecca Parlakian

Rebecca Parlakian is Director of Parenting Resources at ZERO TO THREE and develops resources including apps, curricula, Web-based materials, DVDs, and more, for parents and early childhood professionals. Rebecca holds a Master’s degree in Education and Human Development, with a concentration in infant-toddler special education, from the George Washington University, where she currently serves as adjunct faculty. Her daughter (13) and son (10) help her remember that parenting can be hard, but also lots of fun, and -- most importantly – that the most well-planned, research-based parenting approach almost never works on your own children.

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