April 29, 2021 | Emily Ford Sytsma
As we come into the spring, we often see a blooming interest in friendship among our early childhood students. This is exciting to see as children develop interests in peers as well as skills for working and playing together.
Research has identified some trends in how children interact as they develop socially. While there is plenty of variation, these stages can help us understand how children think about relating to one another.
The first developmental stage, (Level 0) is where children see friends as momentary playmates. A friend is the person I am playing with right now. This is where most of our youngest preschool students are. Because they are not able yet to see things from another’s perspective, they think that we all think the same things and feel the same way. It can feel hurtful when a friend wants to do something different or has a different opinion.
These kinds of interactions often end with, “You are not my friend!” This hurts feelings, but the message is not really a severing of relationship when we think of it in developmental turns. It means instead, “I can’t understand why you are not agreeing with me and I want to get away from this disagreement.”
These conflicts are very easily resolved with an adult’s help. We can help the children begin to understand that it is ok to have a difference of opinion. We can help them see that “You are not my friend” hurts feelings. We can also help them develop some strategies: taking turns, for instance, or changing the subject or activity.
The next developmental stage (Level 1) often begins to be seen betweens ages 4 and 6. In this stage, friends are more permanent and children understand that someone is your friend if they make you happy and do nice things for you. It is a one-sided understanding. Children have a beginning understanding of friendship and care a lot about having friends, but it is an all-or-nothing understanding. This is the stage when children may say, “I won’t be your friend if you don’t give me that truck.” Children can feel very fickle from an adult perspective.
Adults can help by giving children language to smooth over the unhappy moments. Encourage your child to say, “I did not like that,” “I am sorry,” and “I forgive you.” Usually with some support, they can regroup happily.
At this stage, children begin to have a special friend or two. Children understand that friendship is defined by being together and they are able to offer two-way cooperation in order to stay friends.
This second stage is marked by habits like saving seats for a friend. At school we see children who have identified themselves as friends and who write messages to each other each day or always want to be partners. This is an important growth but it can result in exclusion. Again, if we look at the hurtful words, like, “NO! I am saving this seat for Jabari!” in developmental terms, we can see that children do not have an intention of hurting others. Instead, they are just applying their developing understanding of friendship. They understand some things about what friends do with each other and want to do these things but they don’t yet understand how those behaviors affect others.
Grown-ups can help by explaining, again, that these words hurt. We can stress that we play and work with everyone. Some people are special friends and we enjoy times together, but we play and work with everyone and try not to leave others out. We can help children remember that they remain friends with someone even if they don’t sit together or play together.
When we look through a lens of thinking about friendship as developmental, we can let go to some extent of worrying too early about bullying or “mean girl” behaviors. The children are not yet far enough along in their understanding about their behaviors at these stages to classify as anti-social or problematic. It’s more about youngness.
In this article, a social researcher reminds us that knowing how children proceed through the stages, “doesn’t mean that we should just accept it when children are unkind to each other. It does mean that we need to see social problems in a developmental context. We’re better equipped to respond in compassionate and helpful ways if we realize that children’s social missteps usually stem from immaturity and limited understanding rather than enduring character flaws.”
We are fortunate in our preschool that the children are so kind to each other that we rarely see conflict arising among the children. However, these things can always crop up as part of normal development and existing together in a group. We also know that you may see issues around friendships outside of school so we hope that the information here is helpful.
Feel free to ask teachers questions about whether patterns you are seeing in friendships are normal and developmentally appropriate. They probably are, but teachers are always happy to share what they know and observe.