Parenting

Toddler and Preschool Friendships: What I’ve Learned

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When I first began to think through this post, I thought I would title it “How to Help Cultivate Toddler Friendships,” but the more I considered it, I felt like that title would mislead readers into believing I really knew what I was doing when it came to teaching my kids how to make and keep friends. Not exactly true. While my kids are blessed to be able to have several friends (or “cousins” as Hank calls many of them), I don’t know the degree to which I played a role. My guess is that there was probably a little bit of luck involved.

With that said, it has been so sweet to watch my son (Hank) and Melissa’s son (Parker) become the best of friends over the course of the past five years. These two are (sometimes quite literally) inseparable. They overflow with emotion in anticipation of seeing one another and scream for joy when the other is spotted. Their friendship is easy. It’s genuine. And it’s a joy to watch. Let me reiterate that I’m not taking responsibility for their friendship, but I want to give you a peek inside what both Melissa and I have done from the time Hank and Parker were babies.

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Consistent Play Dates

Moms, can we all take a moment to silently confess that play dates are really for us and not for our kids.

Forgive us, offspring. We love you, but the reason we are going to little Johnny’s house this morning isn’t so you can play with his new fire engine toy. It’s so I can confide in Johnny’s mommy and admit that Kroger’s Four Cheese Self-Rising Crust pizza and Cheetos are current dinner staples in our house.

All kidding aside, Mel and I get our kids together regularly. Some seasons look different than others, but it’s safe to say that our kids see each other every couple of weeks, and sometimes, multiple times in a week. That may look different as Parker and Hank enter kindergarten next year (NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!! noooooooooooooooooo!!!! [really deep voice] NOONONONONONNONONONOOOOOOO!!!! Ok, I’m done.), but it’s what we’ve done up until this point.

Our play dates are fairly basic–meeting at parks, the zoo, the Children’s Museum, to name a few, but what is especially nice is to take turns hosting our families in each other’s homes. We love hosting friends at our place (it’s a great opportunity to model what being a thoughtful host and friend looks like), but I always feel especially loved when Melissa invites us over to play in her home. It provides a great opportunity to teach my little ones about sharing and manners (see below) in a different environment. Further, the act of inviting someone into your home says (in my opinion) to my kids–“Hey, you’re loved. You’re our friend, and we want you here.” At the end of the day, Melissa’s kids are comfortable in my house, and my kids are comfortable in hers, and I really believe that has enriched their friendship(s).

Friendships with Other Moms

The above would not be possible if Melissa and I weren’t friends. Having a friend with kids similar in age to mine has been key. Melissa and I have known each other for years but became especially close when we were in the same MOPS group (and started planning our subsequent children accordingly, ha!). Being friends with Melissa has provided us with a perfect opportunity to model a healthy friendship for our kids. Friendships with other moms could be a stand alone blog post (or a book, for that matter), so for now, I will leave it at the fact that in my experience, I think having Melissa (and other mommy friends) around, has helped shaped my kids’ foundational understanding of what friendships look like.

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Be OK with Differences

Hank and Parker–similar to their moms–have a lot in common: a shared obsession with monster trucks, saying “bathroom words” at inappropriate times, and a love of fruit snacks are a few of their past and present similarities. But would you believe it if I told you that they are extremely different in a lot of ways? For example, Hank tends to be cautious and introverted. He could (and does) play independently very well. He’s witty, and we often joke he’s a ninety-year-old trapped in a four-year-old body. Parker loves people. I imagine him being the social chair in his future fraternity. He’s much more physical than Hank, and the kid is a natural at sports. He’s full of energy and is the life of the party. Neither one of their personalities are better than the other; rather, they are just different. And for whatever reason, their differences are the ingredients for a sweet little friendship.

I think it’s easy for parents to compare our kids to their friends. I did this a lot when Hank was a baby (“why isn’t Hank walking yet? So and so walked at nine months. I need to work on letters with Hank. So and so knew his letters by a year old.”). Comparison is yucky, isn’t it? However, what I’ve observed with differences–at least in terms of friendships–is that they can work to your advantage. Parker and Hank make a great team and each have something unique to bring to the table. I can only speak for Hank, but I know that Parker brings out an excitable, energetic side of him that we don’t always get to witness. Their individual personalities is what makes their friendship special, and it’s fun to watch!

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Use Time with Friends as a Place to Teach

Is there a better time and place to teach your babes about friendships than when they are….wait for it…with their friends?! I know. I know. You can’t really “teach” your kids to be friends with each other, but what you can do is take the opportunity to talk about things like being a good listener, trustworthiness, dependability, sharing, and honesty–all essential to establishing great friendships throughout one’s life.

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Talk about Friends When They Aren’t Around

This part may come easily. It does in our home. Hank is constantly wondering what his “cousin” Parker is doing and when he is going to see him next. I think talking about your kids’ friends helps build excitement and anticipation for the friendship. We talk about the Mattingly kids just like we would anyone in our family. They are such a big part of our lives that we naturally incorporate them into conversations.

I write this post with caution. If you are a mom of a toddler or preschooler who doesn’t have a best friend yet, let me encourage you. You (and your duckling) are going to be OK. Your kids are going to make and keep friends over the next several years. I just wanted to give you a peek inside how Melissa and I have cultivated, in a sense, Hank and Parker’s friendship.

What are some things you have learned about toddler and preschool friendships in your experience? We’d love to hear!

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