I met my first best friend in ballet class when we were both five years old. We were early readers and could devour a chapter book in just a few days—a big feat at that age! Somewhere in there, we began trading our favorite books each week, and 30 years later, she still remains one of my closest friends. And while our relationship has ebbed and flowed over the years, I know that she is always there for me, as I try to be for her.
Friendships matter. Not only do I know this from experience, there is also a strong body of research that suggests that the strength of your social network and the power of your friendships can indicate everything from your physical health to your level of happiness throughout your lifespan. Now, as a mother and a former teacher, I think about the lasting impact of friendship and how the development of our earliest friendships can define our future relationships. So how can we support our children’s early friendships?
Teach Empathy: Engage with your child in authentic ways such as asking about their day, noticing when they need support, and offering examples of similar situations from your own experience (e.g., “When I was 5 I fell off my bike. It was really scary and I wanted a lot of hugs afterward.”). You can also model empathy through your interactions with others. Your child will notice how you communicate with others in everyday situations and will hopefully emulate those behaviors.
Model Kind Behaviors: Kids learn best by observation and experience. Consider the everyday ways that you interact with those around you. Do you thank the cashier at your local grocery store? How do you show appreciation and interact with their teacher, the mail carrier, or a friend? Are you welcoming to new neighbors? Do you show concern for the well-being of others when they are ill or experiencing a hard time? Highlight kind behaviors and how they make you feel. Your child is always watching and will notice how you act in the small and big interactions throughout your day.
Celebrate Differences: One of the best ways to practice empathy is to learn about others and the ways that we might be different or the same. Children are naturally curious. They want to notice differences and similarities that they see and they want to make real connections with people. Support them in engaging with people in authentic ways. Make a point to read diverse children’s books and to discuss them with your child. For example, “Our family has a mama, a child, and a dog. This family has a daddy and a papa. Isn’t it interesting that there are so many different kinds of families?” Be honest about bias and stereotypes with your children. Here are some great ways to talk about race and social justice with your children. Help your child to notice and celebrate differences as they explore what makes them and their friends special. Help them to notice how they can have close friends who might look different from them, speak different languages, and like different things.
Engage Peers: Help your child interact positively with other children by supporting them with appropriate language.
- “Hi my name is _____. Do you want to play?”
- “Can I play with you?”
- “What are you playing? Can I join?”
- “Would you like to join me?”
Encourage them to navigate taking turns and sharing with others in age-appropriate ways. For example, try inviting your child to bring two toys to the park—one to play with and one to share. Another way to support your child in engaging with peers is to “sportscast,” or verbalize events as they are happening. You might say something like, “Asha, you had the ball and now Ellie has it. You both want to play with the ball.”
By providing just the facts of what is happening in an interaction between peers, you are empowering your child to learn about social situations without judgment, take ownership of their actions, and learn how to interact with their peers through experience. Learn more about the benefits of sportscasting from parent educator and author Janet Lansbury.
Bubble Space: Teach your child about the need for personal space and boundaries by using the analogy of a bubble. We all have a bubble around us and if someone gets too close, it might pop. We can notice if we need space from others and ask for it. Instead of saying, “You can’t play with me,” they can say “I need space please.”
Feeling Words: Help your child identify and name their feelings using feeling cards. Use books to normalize emotions and provide a variety of examples of what they might look or sound like. Provide safe outlets for your child to express their feelings. You can help your child verbalize their feelings when they struggle to find the right words by saying things like, “It seems like you might feel excited about meeting a new friend” or “You seem worried about someone taking your toy at the playground.” Using this type of language gives your child a chance to practice using feeling words in relation to their own experience while validating that how they feel is important.
Helping our children develop healthy and fulfilling friendships is an ongoing task, though it is one that will benefit your child well into adulthood. Hopefully, these tips help you to support your child as they progress towards friendships with greater independence.
By Jasmine Gibson, an educational consultant with expertise in early elementary education, supporting teachers, and designing curriculum.