Most every gesture of children’s first friendships are, as my sister says, “adorable.” Such moments often elicit oohs and awws from nearby adults. We fawn over children who hold hands, however, it’s easy to overlook the importance of such candid expressions of early friendships.
It is harder to pin down what constitutes friendship between young children than with older ones. Friendships is defined for young children as a mutual preference for just hanging out or playing collaboratively, and by showing their happiness from being around one another (Howes).
The Function. Early friendships are developmentally important in that they give children a chance to practice all those burgeoning social skills like practicing turn-taking, negotiation, and empathy. Toddlers benefit from peer relationships and can be inspired to venture out or play in creative ways.
When children are friends, their interactions may be brief, and their interest in a common game or task fleeting, and yet those commonly valued factors alone do not reveal how important those relationships can be to our children.
The Beauty. Feelings of connectedness start with shared moments. Very often, children seek comfort and find hilarity in one another that an adult interaction can not match. There is something affective about connecting to another person who faces the world from the same position. Young friendships are raw and can be appear subtle, yet feel intense.
Early friendships are so captivating, in part because the interactions are generous. Young children generally do not yet hold back. They may offer to hold hands, kiss, hug, follow one another, and laugh inexplicably at one another.
Don’t Walk on the Grass. Sometimes, these genuine, heartfelt displays of interest and affection between young children can become amusing to adults. Instead of prompting such instances or inserting ourselves into young children’s interactions with adoring commentaries of “how cute,” I try to refrain from interrupting the beginnings of a relationship. Just like a freshly seeded lawn that needs to be left alone to grow, children deserve our restraint to let their friendships happen in time.
Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, . . .It has no survival value; rather, it is one of those things that give value to survival.
– C.S. Lewis
While endearing, moments like these are so much more than a photo op. They are indicative of the kind of relationships that children are eager to develop and sustain even in the early years. When we watch young friends play, we are witness to people uniquely connected by time, their enthusiasm for life, their grandiose ideas, and their delight in the “ordinary.” Peer relationships can be tremendous. It is within their capacity to develop feelings of belonging and understanding, to combat a time in life when powerlessness can be a recurring struggle.
What do you think when you see very young children playing together?
Howes, C. (1983). Patterns of Friendship. Child Development V (54) No. 4. pp. 1041-1053.