Their first friends

Parents are sometimes over-protective of their children and don’t allow them to mingle with other kids. But these early friendships are integral to building relationships that we carry through life

Friendship… the very word evokes memories of our best pals, crazy times in school, pranks in college, group study sessions, bitter fights, breaking and making up and lessons learnt. That is why friendships play such a vital role in a child’s overall development as a happy and healthy individual.

Types of play

It all begins in early childhood as we sit next to another child in the sand pit or in the park. We play alone, seemingly oblivious to the child next to us, but in reality we mimic the actions of that child. This is parallel play, the first step towards socialisation and friendships. Then comes associative play followed by cooperative play, which slowly and surely pushes us towards more complex interactions with other children and eventually towards building the deep bonds that affect us to the core.

Effective social skill trainers

Friendships not only serve to provide children with playmates but also teaches them the larger purpose of social and emotional development. Kids learn how to relate to different people through making friends. Interacting with diverse people allows your child to understand what socially acceptable behaviour is and isn’t. Solving problems, weighing alternative solutions, implementing social plans and making rules are all skills that a child learns as he navigates his way through friendships. He also learns about team spirit, accountability, social reciprocity, responsibility towards self and others and loyalty. It is through friendships and playmates that your child understands that individuals react differently to different situations. He learns that there are diverse perspectives to a situation and that unusual situations call upon singularly distinctive ways of dealing with them. Friendships also encourage healthy competition and foster high achievement goals.

Companionship a survival necessity

A child’s self-esteem is inextricably linked to his peer group. His playmates set the standard for age appropriate performance and it is against this standard that the child measures himself. His friends help him cope with difficult times like parents’ divorce, illness, academic disappointments as well as supporting him through the transition phases of adolescence. Research shows that children with friends have a healthier sense of self, higher levels of self-confidence and greater feelings of wellbeing. They fare better academically and have better social skills when compared to children with few or no friends. Lack of friends or rejection by peers can cause significant amounts of distress and even lead to childhood depression. Friendships are an important factor for the healthy psychological development of a child. Friendships serve a purpose that is different and complementary to the one served by family. Family gives one a sense of belonging, satisfies some of our biological needs and gives us a sense of intimacy. On the other hand, friendship is our training ground; it provides us with the luxury of trial and error and the cushion to make mistakes before we venture out into the adult world.

Friendship at different life stages

Childhood friendships are focussed on rudimentary play behaviours and a preference for certain playmates. Elementary school children tend to focus on kids with similar likes and dislikes and become part of groups with those inherent hallmarks of inclusion/exclusion, fear of rejection, conformity and independence. The focus here is on companionship. But, it is tweens and adolescents that spend almost a third of their day with friends. Friendships now become more intimate and a big part of their identity. Validation, acceptance, care and trust are the other features of friendships at this age. It is at this life stage that peer friendships influence an adolescent at a deeper level. They can either lead him towards delinquent behaviour or foster resilience, higher adaptability, conflict resolution skills and collaborative learning. I remember seeing two children, Anil and Pritam, both aged 10 years, going through a tough time adjusting to their new school. Both had relocated to India recently. Anil and his parents lived in a retirement-haven neighbourhood, where he had a limited opportunity to meet kids of his age. Pritam on the other hand, stayed in an apartment complex and had a lot of peers in the area. He would meet them every evening to play. At the end of six months, Pritam had adjusted well to his new school and new surroundings as a result of the friends he made, while Anil continued to struggle for a few more months before adapting to his new routine. Pritam’s friends helped him to feel at home in his new surroundings, they had modelled the local lingo and shaped his school behaviour, thus aiding the process of Pritam’s settling down.

Encouraging your children to build friendships

As parents, it is important for us to understand the value of friendships for our kids and work towards providing them the opportunities to socialise and form bonds with peers. A visit to the neighbourhood park, organised sport activities, play-dates and sleepovers can provide your child with occasions to develop peer attachments. Setting clear, acceptable rules for social behaviours, teaching the child how to deal with different social situations, coaching them to deal with negative emotions and seeking resolution to peer conflicts will encourage your child to seek out friends and the essential support system. Friendships are a handy play resource, an avenue for finding help and trusting care to your child.

Your friend is your needs answered.

He is your field which you sow with love

and reap with thanksgiving.

And he is your board and your fireside.

For you come to him with your hunger,

and you seek him for peace.

—Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

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The stages of play

  • First is solitary play where the child plays by himself and enjoys discovering new things around him. At this stage however, he does not play with other children.
  • Then comes parallel play, in which the child plays besides another child, sometimes imitating the other child’s actions, but never interacting with him/her.
  • This is followed by associative play where the child often imitates another child playing next to him with minimal interaction in the form of borrowing toys.
  • This is followed by cooperative play which involves interaction, formal organisation and is seen in older children.

This was first published in the December 2014 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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