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The Meaning of Friendship in the Early Childhood Years

"I won't be your friend if you don't let me have that truck." What parent or teacher of young children hasn't heard this outburst? Friendship for adults is so much a part of everyday life that we often take it for granted. We interact so automatically that we overlook the complexity of the interactions upon which friendships are built.

Sustaining friendships takes practice, and the early years of a child's life provide many opportunities to learn the meaning of being a friend.

Three-year-olds are just beginning to enjoy cooperative play and, as they become less ego-centric, they branch out into interactions with their peers. The expectations of friendship focus on common pursuits and concrete reciprocities. Three-year-old children will base friendship on playing with the same toy, sitting next to someone, or having the same clothing or hairstyle. Friendships for threes are fleeting, forever changing, and involve explicit negotiation. "I'll be your friend if you let me play with the doll." Although to the adult this may sound like bribery, in the young child this indicates an understanding that friendship involves give and take. Some children may decide that their friendship is worth the cost of temporarily giving up the doll: for others, keeping the doll is paramount. In either case, negotiation helps both partners redefine their relationship. As children come to understand the meaning of friendship, it is not unusual to hear them validating for themselves that the friendship is real with statements like, "We're friends, right?"

Four-and five-year-old children begin to see friendship from the point of view of mutual understanding, loyalty and trust. Because they are able to see things from another's perspective, they can sustain cooperative play for longer periods of time. These children are developing a strong desire to interact with each other and they negotiate better to sustain the play.

As a child joins on-going play and wants to take on a role that is already claimed, he will need to decide if his independence and his ideas are more important than playing with the other children. By this age most children will find ways of negotiating and compromising so that they can enjoy being together.

By kindergarten children are well on their way to establishing solid friendships that show a genuine interest in each other as people. They want to hear the ideas of their peers, and they truly enjoy the experience of sharing activities together. They have become selective in choosing friends who make them feel good about themselves, and the relationship has reciprocity and commitment. True friends are able to disagree, but they care enough about each other's feelings to make negotiation a priority. The deeper the friendship, the more equality and balance is shown in their resolution of conflicts.

Popularity among children need not be measured by the number of friends a child has, but by the quality of the friendships. A single close friendship may, in fact, be built on a strong foundation of caring and empathy. A true friend is supportive, non–judgmental, and allows for differences in opinion and is emotionally available. In the early years, we have considerable control over the choice of playmates for our children. Over time, however, we must try to help our children discern which children have the qualities and values that will help them feel good about themselves while providing positive role models. And remember, our children are another child's role model and friend.

Reference: Katz, Lilan G. & McClellan, Diane E.: Fostering Children's Social Competence: The Teacher's Role. Washington, D.C., NAEYC , 1997

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