Fred Rogers talks about
"Each person in the world is a unique human being, and each has unique human potential. One of the important tasks of growing is the discovery of this uniqueness: the discovery of “who I am” in each of us— of “who I am” in relation to all those whom I meet."
One of life’s greatest joys is the comfortable give and take of a good friendship. It’s a wonderful feeling not only to have a friend, but to know how to be a friend yourself.
Some children are naturally sociable, and from early on seem to love to have playmates. Other children are more private and seem content to do things by themselves. Not wanting to play with others or clinging to a parent may be their way of saying, “Instead of getting to know those other people right now, what I need is more time to get to know me!” Many young children aren't ready yet for certain kinds of sociability.
When children do make their first social connection, it's usually side by side. They might play next to each other in the same area or with similar playthings. They may just watch each other or imitate each other. That's how friendship begins -- with the understanding that “you’re someone else and I’m someone else.”
“My Best Friend”
The ability to play with another child comes later, along with the growing delight (and frustration) of sharing ideas. Friendships become "give and take," filled with ups and downs, as children learn to compromise, cooperate, and work through differences in feelings and styles.
Those early friendships tend to be temporary -- "of the moment." When a child refers to someone as "my friend," that usually means "we're playing together right now." Being named "my friend" -- or better still, "my best friend" -- is so important to children that when things aren't going well, the most powerful threat they can think of is, "You are not my friend any more." That's usually just their way of saying, "I'm really angry that you won't go along with my ideas." The conflict is often forgotten after a short time, and the two friends are back together again.
The Work of Friendships
Young children have much to learn about sharing toys and sharing ideas, and that kind of learning happens over a long period of time. It takes years for young children to begin to see things from someone else's point of view, and to learn about managing all those complicated feelings, like anger, love, disappointment, frustration, and jealousy.
When young friends have a chance to deal with those feelings, they can often learn that an important part of friendship is working things out after a disagreement and finding that their relationship is even stronger than before.
Parents Value Friendships
Our culture places a high value on friendships and on being "popular." And of course, parents want their children to have friends because they feel they'll have happier times in school and a more confident, interesting life beyond school. No wonder we adults are concerned about their children's ability to make friends!
Understanding Children’s Friendships
Some parents may have wonderful memories of childhood friendships, while others remember feeling like outsiders and longing for friends. Through our lives most of us have had a variety of social experiences. If we can remember those different kinds of friendships that we’ve had through the years, we can better understand how our children probably will, too.
What a delight it can be for parents when their child plays well with a friend! But it can be equally disheartening to watch your child fight with a friend over a toy or to have to take the friend home early when a playdate ends in unresolved conflict. Learning to share and learning to compromise are enormous challenges for young children, whose view of the world is still quite self-centered.
Should I Intervene?
When children fight, they need their parents to step in to help them find healthy solutions, but they also need parents to be patient and to have realistic expectations. Many parents are surprised to find that their children's conflicts are momentary and temporary. The next day the children may have forgotten the problem completely, and the two children will be "best friends" once again -- without any intervention.
Sometimes parents feel they need to be "referees," but it can be far more effective to be "mediators," helping children hear each other's point of view and helping them find a workable solution. If children aren't able to make up again after the disruptions and explosions, they may need some extra help from parents, even when things have calmed down. Some young children stay mad a long time, and they don't have the skills to rebuild a friendship. Those children need their parents to help them talk things out, so they can remember the good times they have had with their friend.
The biggest help we give our children is the examples we set in our own friendships. Attitudes are "caught," more than "taught." That's true for empathy and tolerance and all the other things that have to do with being a good friend. It is from us and our everyday attitudes that our children are likely to learn most.
Alone-Time Is Important
Sometimes preschoolers seem to be “loners.” They just don't want to play with other children. To some adults that doesn’t seem natural; however, it may be both natural and necessary. Since many children these days spend a lot of time in group care, solitude may be just what they need most when they get home.
Until a child has developed a reasonably secure sense of self, playing with other children can quickly become over-stimulating. Self-confidence grows best when children have time alone or in the company of loved and trusted parents. It’s through their early closeness with their primary caregivers that children grow up to be social.
This article is excerpted from “The Mister Rogers Parenting Book” the last book Fred Rogers worked on before his death in 2003. In this book he wanted to support parents in their most important work of parenting and to help them better understand their young children. As he wrote in the introduction to the book:
“.. if we can bring our children understanding, comfort, and hopefulness when they need this kind of support, then they are more likely to grow into adults who can find these resources within themselves later on.”