We're Not All Friends Here

By Heather Shumaker

My mother cringes every time she hears an adult talk about young kids as “friends.” Why? “It’s a lie,” she says.

When children are gathered together in a group we suddenly call them “friends.” Yet oftentimes, young children in a group barely know one another. Even if they’ve played together before, young kids are egocentric and frequently wary of each other. A two-year-old may even view another child as an intruder into his territory. That’s far from a friend.

Kids’ social fears are real and demand our respect. The first step is to be honest about what a friend is and allow your child to make social choices. The second is to help kids gain friendship skills (called “getting into play”) and the ability to set limits on peers.

The truth is, not all kids are friends. One child doesn’t necessarily like another child. Even if they like each other, they might not want to play together. When we try to force friendships, we ask the impossible of children in the social arena when they possess few skills to cope.

Of course, kids are thrown together all the time. Parents get together and our kids rub shoulders with other kids. Kids share space in a neighborhood, day-care program, preschool or family reunion. At these times, children may play together, play solo or play side by side. Whatever it is, don’t assume kids are all friends just because they are all roughly the same age.

Respect your child’s social choices. Kids might have to be in the same space together, but they don’t have to play together. Better learning unfolds when you don’t try to force friendships.

Jamie, just turned three, sits possessively in a little red car. Another child approaches and Jamie eyes him warily.

“Now, be nice. Another friend wants a turn,” says his mother.

Jamie lunges forward with his car and crashes into the other boy’s foot.

“Jamie, be careful! You hurt your friend’s toes.”

When we call young children “friends,” we confuse them and devalue friendship. A friend is not just anybody. A true friend is someone to be treasured—someone who laughs with you, cares about you and simply enjoys your company. Storybooks for kids are full of examples of true friendships. A friend forms a caring relationship with another person, and this ability is just emerging in young children.

Adults sometimes expect kids to play together before they are ready. Your child goes through stages of play, including observer play and parallel, or side-by-side, play. As her brain development and stages of play advance, your child needs to gain skills that help her join in and play with other children. As with any social skill, the art of “getting into play” takes practice.

Social skills do have to be learned. Kathy Hirsch-Pasek, a psychologist who advocates for children’s play, says many adults assume that social development “just happens.” As children learn to interact with peers, they gain social awareness, part of what psychologist Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence, calls “social intelligence.”

First friendships, which typically start around age three or four, are not usually deep emotional bonds. Kids call each other friend if they play with the same toy at the same moment. Just as quickly, a friend could be gone. Preschoolers are experimenting with friendship and don’t understand if friends are here to stay. Can friends disagree with each other? Do friends always play with the same person? There’s a lot kids don’t know about friends at this age.

Remember how new all of this is for your child. Many kids have played alongside other children, but never had a friend of their own. By age four or five, the idea of a “best friend” may be tremendously important, but young kids get uneasy about all sorts of relationship questions. If I play with him, do I have to give up my other friend? Can a person have two best friends at once? If I disagree with her, will she stop being my friend? There’s a lot of basic learning about friendship ahead.

When talking to children about social issues, be honest. Don’t sugarcoat. Social relations are rewarding, but rarely easy. Young kids are making their first forays into friendship and just beginning to figure this out. Instead of forcing friendships, adults need to guide all kids in gaining better social skills.

Take Off Your Adult Lenses: Kids are not magically all friends just because they are all little. Young kids are just learning about friendship, and applying the term “friend” to every situation is confusing. Young kids will play with some kids and ignore others. That’s OK. As an adult, you don’t like everyone you meet, and it’s unrealistic to expect a child will have equal feelings toward everyone. Let her enjoy her first friends—and treat other kids with respect.

Excerpted from It’s Ok Not To Share: And Other Renegade Rules for Raising Competent and Compassionate Kids by Heather Shumaker. Tarcher/Penguin, Penguin Group USA, Penguin Random House. © 2012.