The Problem With Being “Friends”

An educator tells a child, “We don’t hit our friends.” The child responds, “He is not my friend.” This is a true story that happened as I observed students during a clinical practicum class. For some reason, in early childhood education programs, many educators habitually use the word “friends” when they talk to children. “Let’s hold hands, friends” or “time to sit together, friends.” They also spend time reminding children that everyone in the program is a friend. What’s the problem with forcing the concept of friendship on children? I think that the simple vignette offered at the beginning of this blog is the answer. Paragraph. Haz clic aquí para editar.Friendships are developed, sustained, and nurtured. Relationships take time, commitment, and dedication. This past weekend, I spent time with a group of friends; we laughed, cried, argued, disagreed, contradicted, empathized, listened, interrupted, challenged each other, and reflected together. Little by little, we continued to build the foundation of our future relationships. Friendships require us to give part of ourselves to others..Friendships are powerful, and they help us develop our identity. We have the right to choose who we call friends and define the values that will determine the relationship. That is the reason that we must not force friendships on children. We must honor them and believe in their ability to define their own friendships. 

Research shows that friendships are crucial for children. After all, after they enter school, children will spend time in the company of peers. What children do with their friends also clearly changes with development. During the early years, children spend the majority of their time with friends engaging in pretend, imaginative play, where they negotiate rules, find support, learn to argue, and trust each other. It is not often smooth sailing, and there are times when adults must interfere to help children in their negotiations. It is in these moments that adults need to remember the meaning of true friendship and how it is built with compassion and understanding. Simply teaching children to say “I am sorry” or reminding them that they are friends will not strengthen the relationships. On the contrary, they might backfire and create a further disconnect. 

We often talk about the need for children to develop skills to support their social interactions and friendships. We force children to share and take turns in a well-meaning effort to promote friendships. Perhaps it is time to re-shift our adult perspective and understanding of friendships and re-focus our efforts on supporting children in developing their own relationships. By focusing on the meaning of friendships and the meaning they have in our life, we can let children reclaim their right to form their own friendships. My oldest daughter had one close friend in nursery school, and they were inseparable. They would play together and then go off and play with other children. They always re-connected when they needed each other’s support. Having one close relationship helped both of them to connect with other children. Their tight dyad was a safe place to argue, negotiate, and express their ideas and thoughts—skills that are needed in the workforce. 

Friendships and Theory of Mind
Theory of mind can attribute mental states (such as thoughts, feelings, dreams, and ideas) to others and children use this understanding to predict and explain behavior. Young children use the concept of theory of mind in dramatic play or when they share a story with each other. As they grow and build more relationships, they use the theory of mind to negotiate and share preferred activities with other children. Understanding others’ perspectives becomes increasingly crucial as children form friendships with a greater number of peers.   Conflict negotiation, developing intimacy and shared preferences, and navigating interactions are skills learned in meaningful relationships.  

Friendships Can Reduce Prejudice and Discrimination
In our increasingly diverse school systems, communities, and workplaces, children who are comfortable interacting with people of different ethnic, religious, and racial backgrounds are at a clear advantage. When children interact and build cross-racial solid friendships, they learn about the inaccuracy of stereotypes, the inequity of race-based exclusion, and the importance of inclusive racial attitudes. Cross-race companies are associated with more significant prejudice reduction,  more positive intergroup attitudes, and improved social skills and self-esteem. Children who have friends from different racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds often become social activists and stand up against societal inequities. 

You Are My Friend Today, But Not Tomorrow
I have heard children say, “You are not my friend.” This statement often comes after one child does not do what the other child wants. Friendships shift and change based on children’s perception of what they need and what they want at the moment. The process of redefining how we feel within the relationship is part of assessing our wants and needs. I see it as a healthy process that helps children define who they are and teaches them to share and understand other perspectives. Children build more sustainable friendships after they sort and classify their own feelings, wants, and needs. 

We know that friendships are crucial to developing self-esteem and long-term outcomes across social-emotional development and academic performance at school. Some have even argued that children would fail to develop the social skills necessary for later successful adult relationships without the opportunities friendships afford for collaboration and intimacy. We must define our adult expectations. Do we want children to be friends with every child in the program, or can they develop one strong friendship they can count on during difficult times I invite us to redefine our view of friendship and stop forcing children to be friends? Instead, let’s focus on building communities that are founded on respect, understanding, shared values, and the recognition that we all have the right to select our friends. 

Share your thoughts and ideas, and how you define friendships.