How Do Children Form Friendships?
A baby staring into its parent’s eyes. A gentle embrace that soothes a crying infant. A delighted smile when a little one recognises a familiar voice or a face. Those early bonds are powerful and lasting – and they’re the foundation for friendship.
Every person’s approach to friendship is unique.
Some of us have a wide group of friends, while others prefer sharing their lives with a select few. Some people are content with their own company whilst others are happiest when there’s a crowd. But whatever your preferred social structure is, the foundations for friendship began when you were born.
A baby’s relationship with their primary caregivers builds a sense of safety, of belonging and of comfort which enables them to gradually develop relationships with other people. Young babies don’t have ‘friends’ but as a rule, they like being around others and interacting with others.
You often see babies gurgling at each other, reaching for one another, smiling and communicating with sounds – and this interest in their peers grows as they get older. But when do children form actual friendships and how do they go about it?
There are many theories about when, why, how and where children form friendships but it is generally accepted that their relationships with their peers really only start to resemble what we understand as friendship from the age of five, if not a bit later. That’s when children start to form solid friendships and ‘pair off’ as best friends, but having said that, each child is unique and the timing and nature of friendships will differ from child to child.
So how do children form friendships?
Fundamental to the formation of friendships is a child’s skill set. Their behavioural, cognitive and social skills will dictate their success in getting on with others in their peer group – and of course, there needs to be opportunity. Young children need to be around other young children in order to learn to socialise and develop their social interactions. Play dates, mothers’ groups, family gatherings, childcare centres, early childhood learning services – these are all important opportunities for babies, toddlers and young children to learn about socialisation and friendship.
As mentioned earlier, the bonds of friendship start in infancy and babies begin to form meaningful attachments with caregivers with whom they interact regularly – mostly a parent. These bonds continue as they grow older with playful interactions like the caregiver smiling and waiting for baby to smile back, playing ‘peek-a-boo’, taking turns to hold a toy etc setting the foundations for the ‘give and take’ of friendships and relationships later on.
Toddlers (approximately 18 months – three years)
Toddlers tend to play alongside others as opposed to actually playing with them, but this parallel play is an important step for their social development. Modelling and imitating the behaviour of others, especially adults, also paves the way for a child’s social development – and it’s important that their experiences are positive, constructive and consistent.
Pre-schoolers (three to five years)
Research suggests that children get along with one another better when they are engaged in activities where they work towards a common goal (co-operative activities) when they’re in the classroom and when they’re at play.*
Skilled educators at professionally run early education centres can play a significant role in facilitating the development of a child’s skills and will know how to encourage and inspire children in the right direction. They will also know what to look out for when children are struggling with social interaction and integration and will be able to identify some positive strategies.
A child who has lots of play dates and who interacts with multiple children in one place at one time is likely to develop the skills necessary to support the making of friendships. Between the ages of three and five, a child starts to recognise that their thoughts are independent and they’re starting to acknowledge the feelings and ideas of others.
While they’re learning about being friendly and are learning about sharing, they are still focused on their own wants and needs. Personality is a big driver of how a child approaches integration, and some may be shy and reticent to get involved whilst more gregarious pre-schoolers want to play with others all the time.
They form friendships more as a result of the frequency of interaction (for example, if they’re at an early learning centre where they mix with the same group regularly) and if they like playing with the same toys.
Older children (five to seven years old)
From the age of seven onwards, children will start to form solid friendships and will start pairing off with a ‘best’ friend or smaller friendship group. But this does depend on the child, and everyone is different and their early experiences and the character of the child will have a significant influence on their ability to form friendships and their social development.
What we do know is however, is that watchful parents and caregivers have an important role to play in helping children learn friendship skills, including helping them learn how to communicate well, express their feelings and be aware of those of other children, manage conflict and solve problems.
That’s why choosing your early learning centre or childcare facility carefully is crucial. You need your child in the care of experienced educators who have the skills to help your child develop not only their cognitive and physical skills, but their social ones too. You want your child to have the skills to form positive friendships and to have the self-belief to be able to participate in and grow from their early learning experiences.
* Rose AJ and Asher SR. 2004. Children’s strategies and goals in response to help-giving and help-seeking tasks within a friendship. Child Dev 75(3): 749-763