For most of us, “friendship” is an extraordinarily important concept. As someone once jokingly told me, “Your friends are God’s way of apologizing for your family.” Whether you view it that way or not, the fact is that we value and cherish our friends enormously. Consequently, we want our children to have good friends and to be good friends.
Unfortunately, when watching your preschooler interact with his peers, you may quickly become alarmed. While young children do comprehend the concept of friendship and treat their friends differently from other children, their understanding and appreciation of friendship is very superficial at this point in development.
First, their friendships tend to be temporary. They change their friends more often than they change their socks. Furthermore, their friendships tend to be based on rather materialistic considerations. They are more concerned about other children’s possessions than their personalities. So, if you ask a preschooler who his best friend is, he will respond, “Tommy.” If you ask why Tommy is his best friend, he will respond, “Because Tommy has great toys.” The next day if you ask him who his best friend is, he may respond, “Billy.” If you ask him why Billy is now his best friend, he may respond, “Because Billy has better toys than Tommy.”
Finally, the friendships of preschoolers are strictly equitable or “tit for tat.” You will often hear them say to each other, “I’ll let you play with my toys if you let me play with yours,” or “If you invite me to your birthday party, I’ll invite you to mine.” Any violation of the agreement or any perceived imbalance in the exchange, and the friendship is over.
Mothers and fathers may find these attitudes and behaviors frustrating and even frightening. But rest assured things will improve as the children develop. It really isn’t until adolescence that friendships become what we think of when we consider friendship. Even if we knew someone from our preschool days, it probably wasn’t until the teen years that the friendship blossomed into the deep and meaningful relationship we valued so much and recall so fondly.
So relax. As your child socializes with other children in his Romp n’ Roll classes, he is enjoying the kind of peer interactions that are appealing to him and appropriate for him at this stage of development, and he is having exactly the kind of experiences that allow him to explore and experiment with the idea of friendship and thus build solid foundations for the more complex and meaningful relationships he will enjoy in the future.