Friendships and the Early Years of Life

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On the cuteness scale of 1-10, it’s a 12.

I’m talking about watching toddlers and small children play together. Or two children are on the same mat, each doing his own thing. It’s a delight to behold.

These friendships and relationships are an important part of a child’s development. They are so important that they can impact (negatively and/or positively) a child’s psychosocial development and have reverberating effects for future development. Studies show that attributes such as social confidence, altruism, self-esteem and self-confidence are positively correlated to having friends.

It is human nature for people to want to attach to other people. This is a universal concept. It is not gender specific.

Let’s start by saying most children and adolescents have the one proverbial “best friend” and several “good friends.” Infants and toddlers also have friends but their relationships are not as differentiated as older children’s. They have regular playmates and play harmoniously. For the most part.

As much as you may see the playdate as a time for kids pushing mini-strollers and playing with blocks with like-minded friends, the reality is this social time for young children is also an arena for experimenting and learning.  They don’t interact the way teenagers do, let alone how we adults relate. Often, they will bang on the table. But even when they are playing side-by-side with different toys, they are eyeballing and even mimicking one another. This is the beginning of friendship.

Children between the ages of 18 months to 2 years playing together display cavemen-like qualities. One moment, they can be sharing a toy and it’s completely peaceful. In the next moment, one could be bopping the other on the head with the same toy.

Please don’t expect empathy at this age. Forget about social graces like apologizing and sharing. There’s no way you can expect 2-year old Sima to stop, pause, scratch her head, and think, “Wow. Shlomo is playing with a truck that I really like. I’m going to sit and wait patiently until he is finished.” The more likely scenario is Sima will see a toy in Shlomo’s hands and she needs that toy NOW. She will then charge ahead and grab that toy from Shlomo. It is well within the realm of possibility that she will push and shove until she gets what he wants. And the “perpetrator” does not have anger management issues. She’s simply 2 years old.

The challenge is heightened because toddlers have short attention spans. Don’t let me hear you even suggest that Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Hyperactivity Deficit Disorder (ADHD) is an issue at this stage and then ask for medication. Toddlers have short, and even nonexistent attention spans. Period. It’s normal.

How can you, Mommy and Tatty, facilitate play dates for your toddler to aim for a “win-win”?

Timing is essential. Make sure the two toddlers have napped, have clean diapers and are not hungry. Limit the number of participants to two; Two-year olds should play in groups of two children only. Get it? Less is more. Also, try having similar toys so when one is fixated on his toy and the other eyeballs it, Ema or Daddy can swoop right in and give a similar toy. This will minimize the occurrence of meltdowns.

Speaking of parents, it is nice to sit by and chitchat while the playdate is in progress. You may even glance (occasionally) at your phone or iPad. Honestly, though, you have work here. You can minimize the squabbles with “toy intervention.” (See the paragraph above.) Sometimes, you need to guide them from one activity to the next. Reading to your little ones a book or two is almost always calming and welcoming.

Sometimes, the play date may last only 30 minutes. That’s okay.

The scenario changes when 2-3 year olds play together.

First, you can see the beginnings of empathy. If a child gets hurt, G-d forbid, the other child will want to make him feel better. These feelings are usually innate in children.

Also, a two-year old begins to grasp what sharing is about. He might not be capable of it but watch him charm his 5-year-old sibling into sharing. At a minimum, he will talk about the concept of sharing.

Older toddlers begin to express an affinity and even affection for specific peers within their social universe and will gravitate towards them. It might be based on shared interests. Often, there is a genuine like between the two young buddies. When two buddies hit it off, it’s not uncommon for them to find their own space and spend lots of time there, building and creating whatever. Parental supervision is still required.

Once you know that your young child has a friend or two, it is time to have playdates between the homes. Your child should feel secure in the other home as the other child should feel safe in your home. Parental supervision is still required. Expending physical energy is an important part of getting together. Creating something like art projects is also an important outlet. Some mothers in my medical practice have shown me “sticker collages” that their children have fashioned. And a great time to bond.

At this stage, it is vital that parents spend time with children discussing feelings. Encourage them to take others’ feelings into account and listen to others. Sensitivity to other people and their feelings can never be underscored enough. This can be supported by organizing opportunities for your children to meet many people.

As your children moved into elementary school, help your children to develop their own interests. Piano. Painting, Martial arts. Violin. Dance. You get it. Choosing friends who share similar interests is a good thing.

Do you have a child who is shy and does not know how to connect with people outside the family? Role play with them, discreetly of course. And let them see how you navigate friendships.

What if your child and his buddy fight or have a falling out? Focus on what your child is feeling and help him to process those feelings. Impart advice about the ups-and-downs and friendships. Never let your pain, Mommy and Tatty, become his pain.

Respect your child’s personality when it comes to friendships. Some need to be in the thick of things, surrounded by scores of people. Others just need 2 or 3 good friends. There is not one digital footprint for all child in this area.

A word about sharing – We all know the adage, “When we share, we show we care.” It’s true. But there is more to this. Not all children want to share and that’s okay. Here’s an example. Your five-year old has a toy that your niece wants to play with or “borrow.” Encourage your five-year old to share. However, if he resists, respect it. Unless you guarantee him that his toy will be returned in the condition in which it was “lent,” and if not, you will replace it, leave it alone. He has his worldly possessions and that is it.

Helping your child to navigate friendships is not always an easy task. It requires time, patience and the fortitude to know when to step in and when to be more quiet. Separating from your own issues is essential. But always maintain that bond with your child.

As always, daven.

Dr. Hylton I. Lightman is a senior statesman among pediatricians, an internationally-recognized authority and diagnostician, a public speaker, expert witness and go-to resource for health issues in the Orthodox Jewish community and beyond. Originally from South Africa, he started his current practice, Total Family Care of the Five Towns and Far Rockaway, PC in 1987. Dr. Lightman is a board-certified pediatrician and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics (FAAP). Dr. Lightman is a clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine. In addition, he is actively involved in teaching pediatric and family nurse practitioners through Columbia University, Pace University, Lehmann College, and Molloy College, as well as mentoring physician assistants through Touro College. Read more here.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.