“Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind. “Pooh?” he whispered. “Yes, Piglet?” “Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s hand. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”
― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
Several months ago, a one-year-old infant enrolled in our full-day program. Prior to starting with us, his parents had employed a nanny to care for him at home while they worked. Now that he was a bit older, however, they felt it was time for him to be around other children, so that he could begin to — cue ominous music — socialize. After spending some time in our program, observing how we work with the infants and toddlers, his mom asked me about their friendships. “Do they tend to make friends pretty easily?” she asked me, as we observed several infants playing nearby. I considered her question for a little while before answering, as it seems to me to be a complicated issue. Relationships at any age can be complicated things, can’t they? They’re tangled webs of unequal parts history, fiction, hopes, and emotion. As adults, we tend to simplify and romanticize the relationships of young children. We tell children to “go and play,” assuming that certain groups of children will simply find common ground and get along and successfully, peacefully. And quite often, left alone and trusted, they do. By the same token, we often devote a substantial amount of time and energy to telling children exactly how to interact and play with one another. We force them to be inclusive, to be nice, and to share. We’re uncomfortable with their disagreements and their sometimes strong opinions regarding one another. In a wide, bland swath of dishonesty, we tell preschoolers, “We’re all friends!” Is it because we think saying it will make it so? That we can right the wrongs of society with our words? In truth, children learn relationships like language — soaking it all up like a sponge, both consciously and subconsciously observing the way that everyone around them interacts. They learn to be friends by being treated as friends. They learn to include by being included. They learn kindness through kindness. They learn all the worst of us as well: how to hurt with words, with actions, with a cold shoulder.
It’s intensely heartwarming and often humbling to watch infants interact with one another at the earliest stages because they demonstrate the purest of intentions with one another, beginning with a genuine curiosity about one another’s facial features and expressions, bodies and movements, and sounds. There are those who say that children don’t truly make friends until they’re older — three, even four years old — but I think this is subjective depending upon your perception of what friendship is and what it means to children. Based on my observations of the interactions between infants and toddlers, I believe that many children delight in friendships much earlier. I see a genuine caring and compassion and mutual enjoyment between infants sometimes even before they’re walking. I see very young children expressing preferences for who they want to spend time with and expressing joy at seeing a familiar peer again.
Many parents and teachers seem to feel a great deal of pressure to help young children make friends and maintain friendships. We talk a lot about making sure that children are socialized. It is my belief that it would be impossible to overstate the importance of helping young children to develop positive social skills because once they acquire them, they’re good for life. I once read (and wish I could find a source for the information) that if children haven’t acquired certain social skills that help them to get along in a school setting by the time they’re five, they won’t have the chance to master them until middle school. This is one of the reasons that preschool and preschool-like settings are so important. We want children to walk into the world with confidence and kindness. We want them to be friendly and to feel safe asking for help from others. We want, essentially, for them to be a part of a community. At the same time, I believe we all need to take a breath and give children a little bit of space. Relax about it because it’s not a scientific equation that can be solved from the outside. In general, children will be drawn together at one time or another due to common interests, shared curiosity, and a sense of plain old fun. Let’s see what happens when we allow them to navigate early relationships without being told how to do it right (spoiler: they’ll mostly get it “right” on instinct alone). Let’s allow them to bump up against each other and experience conflict and also experience working it out, within safe boundaries. Let’s bite our tongues for a minute and not blurt out who was “using that!” or who “was there first!” Leave that grown-up baggage outside and see what happens. It will be amazing. It may even change your perception of your own relationships.
Here are a few suggestions for promoting truly positive social skills in young children:
- Help children be empathetic by articulating the emotions expressed by them and those around them. For example, when infants notice another child is crying, acknowledge this by saying, “You see that she is upset. She’s crying because…”
- For toddlers, make simple suggestions of how they can help others. For example, “Sam is sad. Maybe he would like to hold his blanket.” Acknowledge when they have offered help, no matter how clumsily or how ill-received.
- For preschoolers, simply ask what they think might help someone else. “I wonder how we could help her,” you might say. Listen to what they have to offer.
- Respect children’s preferences. They don’t have to like everyone. Here are the limits: They may not hurt others. They must be kind. But, really, truly, they don’t have to be friends with everyone. Listen to why your child doesn’t want to play with someone.
- Give children the opportunity to resolve conflicts. Stay close. Intervene if someone is going to get hurt, but don’t stomp all over their interactions. They’re learning.
- Allow your children to have ownership over their things. It is not necessary for them to allow their friends to play with and use whatever they want to. Your children can set boundaries. Respect them. (When you have friends over for a visit, do they slip into your favorite pajamas and eat from the crystal dishes you inherited from your grandmother? Perhaps not. We all need sacred spaces.)
- Help your child understand how to be a respectful guest in a friend’s house. I’ll never forget a child who came to play at my niece’s house when she was about three years old and had my niece pinned against the wall of the playroom, whisper-hissing to her, “You have to let me. I’m a guest!”
- Talk to your child about things they can say when conflict arises, before conflict arises. Role play, use puppets, use teddy bears. Practice, practice, practice. “What will you say if someone takes something you’re using from your hands?” (“I was using that.” “I don’t like when you take something from my hands.” “Please pass that back to me. I wasn’t finished.” “Do you want to use it when I’m done?”)
- Model the kind of interactions you envision for your child: smile at people, even strangers. Hold the door for others. Say please, thank you, and excuse me. Be kind but assertive when necessary — have boundaries. Share because you want to and because it’s nice. Hug your loved ones. Take an interest in other people.
- Be genuine. (As in: if you don’t want to be friends with someone, don’t pretend that you are. Your children are so perceptive. And they do as you do.)
- Trust your children to make choices and to interact with other people without you being on their shoulder (you’re already in their head, for better or worse).
Now take three giant steps back and just watch. This is the greatest honor and pleasure of working with young children — simply being able to observe their amazing interactions with one another, undisturbed. We adults can learn so much in these moments. So much that we have forgotten and so much that maybe we never learned in the first place.
Please note: some children do need more hands-on help with social interactions than others and I’m not suggesting you throw one socially awkward/delayed/timid child to the wolves. I recently heard what I thought was a wonderful way to support a child who is trying to enter into play with others and is being rebuffed. Rather than asking, “Can I play?” encourage children to ask, “How can I play too?” As in, “What role can I take here?” I feel like there is a lot adults can take away from this idea. Also, respect the child who wants to work on their own. Children need to have time and space to themselves too.