As parents, our hearts melt when we witness affection between children, because we know it's fundamental to all good human relationships. But like adult love, childhood friendship is not a bed of roses. There are many stages in the development of friendship and many conflicts that loom in the future. All children will experience meanness, betrayal, and teasing. And all children will show bad judgment at times, and will hurt others.
Experiencing all the aspects of friendship — the good and the bad — is a natural part of your child's social learning and growing process, as painful as it may seem at times. Take heart: he will learn how to make and keep friends, as well as how to be a good friend, with your guidance and support. However, you do not have to teach him about friendship. Children naturally recognize that good friendship is reciprocal, affectionate, and reliable. They teach the rules of reciprocity, mutuality, and equity to one another through interactions in play. Your child doesn't need you to manage his social life, but he does need you to provide a steady, supportive environment for his social experimentation.
The Stages of Friendship
Your baby is capable of choosing a friend as soon as she can get off your lap and crawl around. While babies' early friendships are generally restricted to relatives or children of their parents' close friends, research has shown that in group child care, children as young as 12 months do make independent friendship choices (demonstrated by the time they spend sitting next to their playmates).
From ages 1 to 3, physical attraction and mutual liking is the basis of friendship, but toddlers are not capable of sustaining coordinated play. They sit close by one another playing individually — something known as parallel play. To support your child's growing friendships at this age, simply provide opportunities to be with other children, and help resolve occasional conflicts.
Between the ages of 4 and 7, mutual, reciprocal play is the glue of friendship. Children become increasingly able to generate complex fantasy games, taking on roles, giving one another directions, and sharing leadership.
By around age 7, conversation becomes central to friendship. The discussions tend to be about what you have to do to get along in school, to be "cool," to gain social acceptance, and to avoid getting in trouble. Keeping secrets from adults also begins at this stage. While these are not deeply revealing or meaningful to adults (they're usually about who has a "boyfriend" or did something embarrassing at school), they feel intensely exposing to a child.
In middle school, that intimate, self-disclosing relationship that we know as "adult" friendship actually begins. Twelve year olds begin to share real confidences with their friends: their fears, their fantasies, the dysfunction in their parents' marriage. Middle schoolers really begin to open their hearts to each other, which is one reason why friendships can feel like a matter of life-and-death. At this acutely self-conscious age, when one's new identity as a person separate from the family is just beginning to form, betrayal by a friend can feel overwhelming.
The Power of the Group
Young children quickly realize that, by forming a duo or a small group, they can have a strong impact on others. They want to choose their type of play and their playmates. If their play is consistently attractive to others, they may soon recognize that they are popular, so they will declare that they have formed a "club."
Kindergarteners' "clubs" might last for a day or two, but group membership is fluid. By 3rd and 4th grade, however, group membership is much more fixed and the issue of who's "in" and who's "out" is carefully enforced by the social leaders — the "popular kids." By late elementary school, there is a social ladder in every classroom, with the very popular children (15 percent) on top, the accepted group (45 percent) next, followed by the average group (20 percent) and the unclassifiable group (20 percent).
Support Your Child's Friendships
There is a certain amount of normal social pain in childhood. It is part of learning about the complexity of social relationships. You may feel a bit helpless and bewildered when your child's social life becomes more intricate and shifts — when old friends are dropped or when new ones (some of them not to your liking) are added. But remember that you gave your child her first lessons about reciprocity in the first 3 years of life, and you still have an important role as her most trusted adult. If you focus on listening to your child and being open-minded about her friendship experiences, she will continue to turn to you in times of joy and trouble.
Here are some strategies you can use to help your child learn to be a good friend and deal with difficult social situations when they arise.
- Worry a little less. Most kids figure out friendship and group life pretty well. Most will get over the inevitable upsets, rejections, and betrayals without terrible scars. But even those with scars have a chance to heal as they grow up and find new opportunities for friendship, love, and acceptance.
- Provide subtle encouragement. You can provide a great deal of direction, modeling, and support, but most of the time it should be invisible. For example, your kindergartener may be drawn to another child during the school day but not know how to transfer that friendship into out-of-school hours. Ask if he would like to invite that friend over for a playdate. Try to make space for play in the house, somewhere where he can entertain a friend. If your child is going to have friends, he has to have permission to be a host. Likewise, he needs permission to visit other children's homes; this will send the message that you want him to pursue friendships.
- Model empathy and reciprocity. The two most important building blocks of friendship are the ability to take another person's point of view, and the willingness to share. Teach empathy by demonstrating it yourself.
- Show inclusion. Invite people into your home, treat them with respect, have fun with them, and tell your child why you value your friends. If new people move into the neighborhood, invite them over for a cookout. This helps your child learn to welcome newcomers in school.
- Know where your child stands in the group. If you suspect she is lonely or is having trouble socially, talk with her teacher. Teachers know what goes on in school and can offer insight. You need to know if your child has habits that annoy other children so you can help her. If she is popular, help her be a positive leader and use her power wisely.
- Provide a wide range of friendship and group opportunities. Be sure your child has opportunities for forming friendships. If he seems isolated at school, he might need another group in which to find a friend: a church group, a scout troop, or an after-school arts or sports class.
- Hold your child accountable for her behavior. Teasing, bullying, gossiping, and exclusion all violate our moral beliefs. If you see your child hurting another child, call her on it. Help her recognize that it's wrong and help her put a stop to it.
- Avoid going back to school yourself. Don't gossip, don't compare, and don't try to identify villains and angels. Parents rarely have complete and accurate information about the social lives of children in school.
- Listen to your child. Be available when he wants to talk about his social life. Acknowledge the difficulties and accept the complexities. Don't overreact and don't try to solve every problem. When I ask children, "What's the most helpful thing your parents do?" they always give me some variation on the following: "My mom listens. She just listens." Even for young children, it is more important for you to listen than to give them strategies, though they are more open to advice than older children.
When Children Are at Risk
While it's upsetting to hear that your child is being excluded, if she falls into her class's accepted group there's no reason to worry. The children in this group — 80 percent of all children — almost certainly have at least one friend, which protects them from experiencing long, lonely days in school.
It is the bottom 20 percent of the children on the social ladder (the unclassifiable group) that psychologists worry about. These children may have no friends at all. They fall into three categories: neglected children (5 percent); controversial children (5 percent); and rejected children (10 percent). Neglected children tend to be very shy, very close to their families, and good students. They don't attract much attention from their peers. Controversial children may have some traits that their peers like, but they also have annoying habits — being a poor sport or having poor hygiene, for example. Rejected children are either overly aggressive from the start and react to being rejected with more aggression, or they become depressed and withdrawn.
Teachers, administrators, and parents have an obligation to help these children. Controversial children need to be coached to give up their annoying habits; rejected, angry children may need counseling. Parents have to help their children find friendships in other venues: youth groups, sports teams, community service projects, or with cousins and neighbors.
School administrators can make a huge difference in the lives of at-risk children, so be sure to talk to them about help they can offer. For example, they might be able to arrange friendship groups that help isolated children connect with a friend. Just six to eight meetings of such a group can have a significant positive impact. Administrators should also implement anti-bullying policies and train teachers to create a socially safe environment in the classroom.
It only takes one real friend to alleviate the worst aspects of loneliness.