A recent trip to the zoo gave me an intimate look at friendship between children. Everyone knows that adult friendships blossom, over time, through mutual interests and communication. For a toddler though, friendships is obtained by simply being in the same place at the same time, enjoying the same toys, and playing together; no matter how brief the relationship may be.
As we left, I asked my young companion about the child he had been playing with. His answer was simple: “She’s my friend.” The boy doesn’t even know her name, I thought, how can she be a friend? It then occurred to me that at this age, one can make a friend by simply gracing another with humanness and personhood. (If only we adults could get that back, what a great world this would be.)
Once your child reaches this level of social awareness, you can encourage him to continue broadening his horizons through interaction and relationships with his peers. One of the best ways to prepare your child for school is to provide him with a wide variety of playmates. This group of playmates should include children from alternative families, different cultural and ethnic groups, and different economic backgrounds. Always remember that your child will emulate you, so your group of friends must be as diverse as his.
Of course, no relationship is flawless, so toddlers should be closely monitored while playing together. Between the ages of three and five, children of the same age are often at vastly different stages of social development, and this can lead to conflict between playmates. Your son may be ready to rule the world, while his timid playmate is barley ready to socialize at all. The best course of action in this situation is to only intervene when absolutely necessary because children need to learn how to resolve conflict on their own.
When your child begins to socialize outside of the family, they may feel shy or uncertain at first. This is totally normal, and there is no reason to push, however, by late preschool age, socialization with peers is critical. During times of uncertainty for your child, make sure you provide a wide variety of social experiences. In addition to other preschoolers, arrange for your child to spend time with you, with other adults, and playing independently, A wide variety of experiences at the preschool level will better prepare your child for their future.
A final word: If your child seems excessively fearful, it’s time to back off a little. Remember that every child is different. If your shy son or daughter has a problem socializing, then take it as slow as necessary. Introduce each new social setting with a parent or a close loved one nearby. Most of all, remember that soon your child will be so social that you’ll have a hard time keeping up with them!