North Dakota State University
NDSU Extension Service


I've discovered a way to stay friends forever --
There's really nothing to it.
I simply tell you what to do
and you do it!

Shel Silverstein

Adults recognize that to have a friend, you need to be a friend. A preschooler's thinking is more self-centered, much like the poem above. This is a normal stage of development, and with a lot of help, understanding and encouragement, young children can develop friends in spite of their egocentric stage of life.

Young children learn how to get along with others the same way they learn most things. They learn by seeing and hearing their adult models (parents) and by practicing the skills they've seen and heard.

Why Are Friendships Important?

The idea of a playmate to share toys and laughter, excitement and special times is the bright side of friends and friendships. The downside is the arguing and hurt feelings, the tears and the jealousy. Parents of preschoolers might ask, "Why bother?"

When children play with other children their own age, they have great opportunities for learning fairness, sharing, taking turns, following the rules, negotiating, compromising and cooperating. They learn other children also want the biggest piece and the first turn. They learn other children feel bad when they have to wait or when someone pinches them. Children who only play with adults or older children never have the chance to work out their friendships as equals.

Children who are rejected by their peers or have no friends are at risk for later emotional and mental health problems, dropping out of school, delinquency, lower grades, a harder time adjusting to school and a negative outlook about school.

How Can Parents Help?

Friends are important to a growing child. Parents provide nutritious foods, plenty of rest and exercise to help their children develop physically. Practice at being a friend is just as important to social and emotional growth.

The success of the play experience depends on several factors:

Parent's Expectations -- Children do not share until they are somewhere between 4 to 6 years old. Some don't share until much later if they haven't had practice at it. Parents can expect some arguments, perhaps threats, bribes and other unpleasant ways of dealing with people. Try not to get involved unless you are asked to or if someone is going to get hurt. Adults who get mixed up in preschoolers' problems frequently make things worse. Help children talk about what they want and need. Teach ways to wait and above all, ways to negotiate.

Children's Activity Level -- Children can range from calm to very active. Be ready for differences and provide standard equipment that gives everyone a feeling of success. Sand, water, big balls, a lot of open space, dress-up clothes, play dough, and an arts and scraps box are usually favorites of the preschool age.

Toys and Turns -- The amount of practice children have had at being friends can impact how they accept or reject the idea of playmates using their toys. Experiences with other friendly children will help them realize other children can add an element of fun playing alone doesn't offer.

Amount of Time Together -- Parents need to decide the length of time children will be playing together. However, if they are having difficulty, separating and trying again another day might be the best answer.

Play -- The space and toys available will determine the kind of play to expect. An arsenal of war toys will lend itself to running and shooting and loud sounds and words. A puzzle will be quieter and more cooperative in nature. Large, open spaces invite fast movement while small, full spaces demand that people go slow.

When Should Adults Step In?

When It's Going Well

When children are sharing, talking kindly to one another or showing other friendly behavior, encourage them with a statement such as, "I like the way you are working together on that castle," "I enjoy watching you two play together" or "That's what I call cooperation!" Children feel good about being noticed for positive reasons. The behaviors we pay attention to are the ones that often get repeated.

When It's Not Going Well

Introduce a new game or snack time. Perhaps you could sit down together and review the rule that people are not for hurting. Next, talk about a different way the children might play to ensure nobody gets hurt.

Be prepared to hear 5-year-olds barter for friends: "If you do this for me, I'll be your friend." Three- and 4-year-olds will seem unkind when they say, "I don't want to be your friend." Translated this means, "I want to play alone right now." While another 3- or 4-year-old would not take this comment personally, parents find it rude and unacceptable. If this type of statement makes you uncomfortable, help the child restate what he has said without making an issue of it. A statement such as, "You would like to play alone right now," will clarify the point for all concerned.

Skills to Make and Keep Friends

Children who feel loved and accepted in their families and whose ideas and talents are valued feel confident in themselves and competent in forming successful relationships. They are better able to develop skills that attract friends and maintain successful friendships.

Check out theses books about friends

We Are Best Friends (Aliki) About a best friend moving away.

Will I Have A Friend? (Miriam Cohen) A child enters preschool and meets new friends which makes preschool a lot less worrisome.

Are You My Friend Today? (Gyo Fujikawa) Young friends pictured in a variety of activities.

I Know A Lady (Charlette Zolotow and James Stevenson) An inter-generational book of friendship.

Making Friends (Fred Rogers) A First Experience Book about friends. Ages 2-7.

This newsletter is published for North Dakota families with preschoolers by the NDSU Extension Service and distributed through your county extension office. See your extension agent for more parenting information and other home economics programs.

Parenting Preschoolers, Issue No. 18

NDSU Extension Service, North Dakota State University of Agriculture and Applied Science, and U.S. Department of Agriculture cooperating. Sharon D. Anderson, Director, Fargo, North Dakota. Distributed in furtherance of the Acts of Congress of May 8 and June 30, 1914. We offer our programs and facilities to all persons regardless of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability, age, Vietnam era veterans status, or sexual orientation; and are an equal opportunity employer.
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North Dakota State University
NDSU Extension Service