That's what friends are for
Childhood friendships, where they learn to listen, imitate and co-operate, are at the heart of their learning processes and well-being, writes Dearbhala Cox Giffin
We all know the value of friendship. Friends contribute greatly to shaping who we are as individuals, and their importance in life is unmeasurable. The significance of children's relationships and friendships with each other cannot be underestimated - early friendships occur while key developmental changes are taking place and they help to teach children many important life skills, often shaping their life narrative.
Friendships and relationships begin to emerge from early childhood, as even young babies recognise familiar faces and form a connection. At playgroup, crèche or mother-and-baby sessions, young babies begin to communicate and initiate play interactions, copying and echoing each other and giggling together. This sets the foundations for later group social interactions.
This communicative and intuitive play continues through early childhood and is critical to supporting children's emotional and social development as they begin to form their early friendships.
Childhood friendships are at the heart of children's learning process. Through their friendships, children learn to listen, to imitate, to co-operate, share ideas, develop creativity and learn life skills, such as sharing, taking turns and being considerate to one another. They become close friends and play partners where they can test boundaries and new ideas; they learn to be critical thinkers whilst also developing language skills and building their inner self-esteem and social confidence. They can understand each others' thoughts and often understand each others' feelings as well. Learning to build friendships is one of the ways children develop into well-rounded, emotionally healthy human beings and they have great fun at the same time.
Parents also have a key role in supporting their children's friendships. Children learn all about the complexities of communication from an early age and react to eye contact, tone of voice and facial expressions. They learn how to negotiate and to influence their parents and become adept at getting what they want!
Children are born with an innate need to attach or be in a relationship, but how they go about forming those relationships depends largely on their temperament and their experience of communication and social interaction at home, on play dates and in crèche in their early years.
Children start to develop real friendships around the age of four or five and sometimes even earlier. They often naturally gravitate to the more outgoing and sociable children in the group and then begin extend their interactions to the wider group, building a deeper understanding of each other. Some children, however, are cautious and may need more guidance about social interactions and making friends, especially when they are younger toddlers and pre-schoolers. It's all about balance, consistency and gentle guidance. Accept that while you can't make friends for your child, you can give them the tools and social opportunities to develop their relationships with their peers.
Arrange play dates where your child chooses the activity and then has the opportunity to play in a group or possibly with one other child, learning about co-operation, sharing and turn taking. Observe your child and you will learn what kind of social interactions work best for them. Try not to hover over the children as they play, as adults often influence the dynamic and deprive the children of the chance to negotiate and problem solve.
Naturally, children want to play with other children where they can have fun without one child taking over and bossing everyone around, so you may need to referee on occasion and explain about taking turns in being the leader, sharing, listening to each other and being kind. Adopt a problem-solving approach to the children's dilemmas and encourage them to find their own solution where possible.
If there are older children in the family, this can often be the golden opportunity to support and develop younger children's learning and social skills. Younger children aspire to do the things that an older or more experienced child can do and they are often valuable role models in aiding the younger child to build friendships, gain new social skills or practise existing ones whilst exploring experiences together.
By giving your child the skills they need to be confident and compassionate, you increase the likelihood that friends will eagerly come into their life. Making friends is a lifelong process and will of course have its ups and downs. Pain, unfortunately, is a part of it. All children will experience some form of normal social pain in their friendships and parents can support them by listening and acknowledging their feelings.
Help your child to understand how words or actions might be hurtful to them and let your child know that in your family, you don't hurt other people's feelings and that also should not let others hurt them. Provide your child with lots of reassurance about being kind and sharing, as this is the cornerstone of developing their social interactions and will underpin their emerging friendships and relationships with their peers.
Your child will quickly learn that friendships are important, and as they get older, they will treasure their childhood memories as they enjoy the benefits of a life rich in happiness with their friends.
How to support friendship development in your child’s life:
• Offer a variety of opportunities for play dates and socialising, such as trips to the zoo or the farm, and vary the play experiences so that your child has the opportunity to play with other children their age, both one to one and in a group
• Give your child lots of unstructured time to play without adult intervention or direction
• Give your child time every day and listen to what they are saying
• Role model being an active listener — guide your child to do the same so that he makes eye contact with his friends when they talk
• Give compliments to your child to build their self-esteem
• Be understanding of what your child is feeling by showing empathy
• Support your child’s choice of friends and welcome them to your home and get to know them and their parents
• Encourage kindness and suggest that your child makes birthday cards for his friends and shares their toys
• Watch out for bullying and don’t expect that children will always be able to resolve the issue; talk to the other parents, the staff at crèche or to your child’s teachers to support your child and address the bullying.
Dearbhala Cox Giffin is Director of Childcare at Giraffe Childcare; giraffe.ie