Friendships play an important role in a child’s life, even a toddler. Preschool friendships provide companionship, but they also teach children sharing, negotiation and trust.
Over the last five months my 3-year-old son, Eli, has become greatly interested in friends: having friends; who’s friends; who’s not friends, etc. I’m pleased with the appearance of this developmental stage.
I don’t remember any friends in particular from when I was 3. I spent most of my preschool years at home or in the care of close family. In the years since, my mom has often remarked how well I played by myself as a little girl, a skill I’m sure I developed as much out of necessity as out of innate preference (after all, I am an introvert).
My husband, though, remembers the friends he had when he was 3, one of whom he remains in touch with 30-plus years later. His eyes brighten when he speaks of this friend with whom he crossed creeks, threw rocks, played soccer, and then years later, experienced graduations with, traveling the world, and getting married. The strength and longevity of it amazes me.
In retrospect, what my husband found when he was 3 years old was more than a play date partner; he found a friend for life.
So it is with hope and admiration that I watch as Eli develops friendships of his own. Part of me wonders which of his friends today will still be a part of our lives 30-plus years from now.
As an outsider looking in, it is a bit hard to tell sometimes which 3-year-olds are BFFs, because like most friendships, they certainly have their spats. Once, when Eli’s very close friend, Morris, visited us at our house, the two of them joyfully went straight to Eli’s room to enjoy an abundance of toy options. I came in and sat down, happy to watch and not have to participate (a mother can only take so much of playing with cars and trucks in any given day). About five minutes into play, a verbal fight broke out over one particular toy. Who should get to play with it? “Mine!” “No, mine!”
I tried to distract one with a different toy option—it didn’t work. Then I tried to distract the other—to no avail. Tears began to flow, followed by loud sobs, and then total meltdowns on both sides. They seemed to want to have nothing to do with each other unless the other gave in.
“Let’s go for a walk,” I suggested, and thankfully they agreed. Morris wanted to ride in a stroller, so Eli demanded that he be able to ride in a stroller, too. My husband was close by, so we loaded them up separately and began to push them side-by-side. The occupant of one stroller abruptly pulled his canopy down to make himself invisible to the other. Seeing that, the other child loudly did the same. Each boy made it clear that he didn’t want to be bothered. So we walked on, my husband and I filling in the silence with random talk.
I was beginning to consider calling Morris’ parents to tell them we would be bringing him back home when I saw one child peek his head around his canopy to catch a peek at the other, then pull back. A few seconds later, the other child snuck his head around the canopy, too, looking hopefully toward the other—then pulled back. One did it again, and then the other, and over and over until both of them were shouting with laughter and full of smiles playing a fast-paced game of peek-a-boo.
That was a few months ago. These days, both boys have developed better sharing skills, and have learned to talk things out. For example, if Morris was playing with a toy, I have heard Eli ask, “May I play with it?” and Morris cheerfully conceded. I’ve seen them take turns. I have seen them show empathy toward each other. And I have seen them build towers, run around, or ride their bikes together for long periods of time and then, jointly and sort of implicitly, decide that play time was over, and it was time to hug and say goodbye.
That’s a good friendship, in my opinion. A friendship that, given time and nurturance, could develop into a trusting, supportive, and encouraging companionship for years to come. Even if circumstances separate them at some point, their friendship will still have served an important purpose: helping our children become the caring, cooperative, well-rounded people we hope for them to be.
Our 3-year-olds are growing up. It’s not just about us parents and adults fulfilling their every need any more. They gotta have friends.