For many girls, friends form the center of their lives. As girls grow up, it’s not unusual for them to find best friends, break up, and reform friendships time and again. Friendships blossom and (occasionally) conflicts begin to bloom in preschool, when girls move from parallel play to playing with others.
Girl friendships start off magically.
“The magic of friendship really starts when girls are drawn to each other through imaginative play and common interests. When it works, it’s like watching a dance or jazz improvisation,” comments Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D., co-author of Best Friends, Worst Enemies and Mom, They’re Teasing Me. “Preschool girls often seem in perfect harmony, creating imaginary worlds and games. Big conflicts do occur — but there’s flexibility and real beauty in their exchanges. I think when girls get older they often look back and miss that complete connection they once had.”
Preschool girls have an enormous capacity to bond.
Young girls form attachments that have a great deal of importance and meaning to them. They really ‘fall in love.’ A girl’s best friend at nursery school is her anchor, and everything becomes right when that friend walks in the classroom door. Experts recommend you don’t force friendships on girls, but you can encourage them to reach beyond their social sphere and become comfortable in a range of situations and with a range of people.
Girls and boys often stop playing together in preschool.
The shift into gender-exclusive play begins between ages of three and five for many children. When given a choice, many girls tend to be drawn towards art, dolls, and fantasy games, while boys will more often go into the block area or pull out imaginary swords. “With boys, the activity is the main focus,” says Cohen, “but with girls, even young ones, the relationship becomes primary.”
Although experts differ over reasons why, it is clear that girls care deeply about friendships starting at a young age. However, with these new relationships come new issues and challenges.
The challenge with threes.
“Having a ‘best friend’ can make a young child feel very secure,” says Jane Katch, a veteran teacher at the Touchstone School in Grafton, Massachusetts, and author of They Don’t Like Me. “In a game of pretend, both children know who they like to pretend to be and how the plot should progress. It can be hard for them to allow a third child into the mix. They may think the third person will change the rules or won’t know how to play it the right way. When helping a third child join in, I might begin by suggesting the new player ask, ‘Who can I pretend to be?’ If she encounters resistance, I might ask the other two, ‘How can you help her join the game in a way that won’t spoil what you’re playing?’ ”
Young girls are taught to bury their aggressive feelings.
“Toddler girls are just as likely to punch and grab and bite as boys,” observes Cohen, “but the stage begins to set for girls to suppress their aggressive feelings when authority figures urge them to be nice.” As a result, girls are forced to internalize their anger and communicate feelings indirectly, through exclusion, gossip, and meanness. “In my class,” says Katch, “girls’ meanness becomes quiet. Girls may just refuse to sit next to someone in a circle.”
Power plays and exclusion begin when girls are young.
“Young girls often reach for power by what they say, with statements like ‘You can’t come to my party’,” observes Katch. This kind of behavior, called relational aggression, involves excluding others and making indirect but deeply hurtful comments. Katch says, “When I see this happening, I talk with the kids. I like to support the child who feels left out while helping the insiders develop empathy. One of the things I ask is, ‘How would this feel if you were the one being excluded?’ It reminds them all what it feels like to be in that situation and they’re more likely to support the odd girl out.”