Help Your Preschooler Make Friends
How to Encourage Preschool Friendships
by Dr. Caron Goode
During the preschool years, children learn a lot, including how to be a friend. Up until now, your child has mostly engaged in parallel play with her peers. Around the age of three, she will begin to show interest in the children around her and perhaps even mimic them. This imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. It means she wants to be friends.
When my daughter was three, a new family moved next door to us. This family had several children, including a four year-old son named Patrick. Patrick was a slight child with pale skin and chocolate chip eyes. He also walked with a pronounced limp. Once they had settled in, I invited Patrick and his mother over for a welcome to the neighborhood cup of coffee and cocoa. While the children played at our feet, she explained that Patrick had just had corrective surgery for a slight curvature in his legs.
The visit was fun and the children seemed to play well together. I could see new friendships blooming for myself and my daughter. The next day, I noticed Riley walking funny. When I asked her if she had hurt herself, she shot me a puzzled look and a resounding, “No!” I went about my business thinking nothing of it until I called her to lunch. She dramatically drug one leg behind the other while she made her way into the kitchen.
I fell to my knees and started prying and poking at her leg, asking if it hurts here or what about here. “Mommy, my legs don’t hurt,” she cried after a series of knee bending and toe wiggling. “I am walking like Patrick.” My first thought was that children can be so cruel. I quietly explained about the surgery and told her it was not nice to make fun of the way Patrick walked. “I’m not making fun,” she said. “I like the way Patrick walks. I want to be just like him. He is my friend.”
I said nothing more about her limp. I had placed adult values on preschool friendships which led me to jump to a negative conclusion. While the basic underlying principles are the same, young children have a decidedly different view on friendship. They are just beginning to understand emotions and their connection to other people. They are just starting to learn what friendships are. For three and four year-olds, friendship begins by showing interest in other children and mimicking them. Like Riley was with Patrick. While she longed to be his playmate, she was just learning the social skills necessary to friendship. Therefore, in her mind being like Patrick equaled being his friend.
As it turned out, Riley and Patrick did become friends and remained friends until his family moved again. If you see your preschooler showing interest or mimicking one of her peers, chances are this too is a friendship in the making. Recognize this and gently steer your child towards the tools she will need to build a friendship. Here are some more tips for helping your preschooler forge those first important friendships.
- Practice. Social skills are learned through practice. Therefore, it is important that parents arrange regular playtime for their children. If a child does not attend daycare or preschool, make play dates or join a playgroup.
- Be a Good Role Model. Children learn mostly everything by example. Learning to be a friend is no different. Let your child see you interact with your friends. Show her the happiness that comes from being a good friend and the support that comes from having good friends. Also, know that she is watching your every move for clues. Make sure those moves are positive ones.
- Don’t Expect Perfection. Like everything else, your child has to learn how to be a friend. Do not expect this to come naturally or be perfect from the get go. It takes time. What is important is that you make it possible for her to try her hand at building friendships.
- Know When to Mediate. At three, children may feel more comfortable having a parent present while they play and often turn to them for help with social skills. By the age of four, children are better at reading their playmates emotions. This allows them to formulate their own solutions, which, in turn, makes them less dependent on parental interference.
- Praise Her Efforts. When observing your child at play, be sure to praise her for trying to be a friend. If you notice her sharing a toy or trying to comfort a crying playmate, praise her. As with everything, children look to their parents for guidance when learning to interact with others.
Making the effort to establish friendships in an important social building block for your child. It is important that parents nurture and encourage these first attempts at friendship. The skills learned in these relationships are the foundation on which all future friendships will be built.
Dr. Caron Goode is the founder of the Academy for Coaching Parents International, a global online school for training successful, parenting coaches in home-based businesses. She is the author of fifteen books, including the international best seller, Kids Who See Ghosts, and the national award-winner Raising Intuitive Children. See and review all of Dr. Goode’s books here. Dr. Goode is also the founder of HeartWise Parent, a learning center for parents and Live-Spirit.com, which provides tools for spiritual living.