It's a winter morning and the members of my mother's group and I are drinking coffee and tossing around ideas for getting more sleep. Our babies, all around six-months-old, are lying on a big quilt on the living room floor, gurgling and shaking rattles. I see my daughter, Ilana, gaze at Beth's son, Matthew, the one baby in the group whom she has "known" since birth. Ilana drops her rattle and starts kicking her legs, squealing with excitement. Matthew returns the look and chortles. That afternoon, I write in the book I keep for Ilana: "She seems to have a thing for Matthew - and I think it's mutual."
Abby and Nancy, who met in a childbirth preparation class, jokingly call their kids, Leah and Elliot, "Lamaze siblings." For two years, Abby and Nancy spent many afternoons together with their babies, and the families would often get together on weekends. At two-and-a-half, Elliot and Leah are best friends. They speak to each other on real and toy telephones, greet each other with hugs, and ask to play together every chance they get.
But read about babies and toddlers in any classic child-rearing book, and you'll read that while they may enjoy being around their peers, they do not form friendships until much later. Jean Piaget, the grandfather of child development research, determined that preschoolers were egocentric and subsequent thinking about their relationships flowed from that assumption. Until recently, experts believed that five was the minimum age for making friends.
Recent research, however, has shown that babies as young as nine months can and do form emotional attachments to one another. (And my own "research" at home shows it's even younger than that.) In order for this to happen though, the children need to come into frequent, sustained contact with one another.
Clinical and developmental psychologist Edward Mueller's landmark 1975 study on toddler interactions paved the way for psychologists' changed thinking about early friendships. He became interested in the subject after watching his son, Loren, form a strong attachment to Robert, the son of family friends.
"Robert's mother is Danish, and the Danes have long believed that young children are capable of friendship," Mueller says. "She suggested getting the kids together regularly when Loren was eight-months-old and Robert was six-months. Christmas break came about six months later, and the kids didn't see each other for a couple of weeks. When they met again, they played a greeting game showing their joy at being back together. Robert walked in the door, and, gesturing to Loren, said, 'Da!' and laughed. Loren laughed back. Robert gestured, said, 'Da!' and laughed again and Loren laughed back again, sustaining the game. This went on for about 17 rounds.
"We realized then that this was more than a peer relationship," says Mueller. "It was a true friendship.
"We were amazed because it went against everything the textbooks said."
TRICKLE DOWN FROM MOM
Early friendships often develop between children whose mothers are friends and who get together regularly with their kids. Whether they realize it or not, mothers who are friends seem to encourage their young children to become friends. I remember wanting Ilana and Matthew to be friends in part because I knew their developing friendship would cement the growing bond between his mother, Beth, and me. Elliot's mother, Nancy, says, "I probably encouraged his friendship with Leah by the way I talked about getting together. It was such a treat for me to see Abby."
Especially at the age of two, friendships can take some of the pressure off parents. Only another two-year-old can enjoy running around the dining room table, laughing 25 times, and then want to do it again. Only another toddler will be happy jumping off that first step and then scrambling back up umpteen times with your little one.
Joan, whose daughter Rebecca became best buddies with Sheila's son Jon when the two moms met at a mothers' center and became friends, sees how important Jon's friendship has been to Rebecca. "It's important to feel you're very special to someone outside your family. It makes you feel safe. It makes you feel loved," she says.
HOW TO FOSTER EARLY FRIENDSHIPS
- Be a friend to your child. The roots of friendship are in a responsive, secure parent-child relationship. Early communications skills that infants learn with parents -- like smiling and vocalizing -- are later used with peers.
- Provide your infant or toddler with opportunities to interact. Practice makes perfect! Arrange frequent and regular contact with a small number of peers (one is enough,) in your home or theirs. Try to find mothers whose company you enjoy.
- Choose the right materials. The younger the children, the bigger the toys should be: Dress-up items, large blocks, empty boxes, an exercise mat, and other household items contribute to cooperative play. Stay away from puzzles and small stacking toys, which kids tend to fight over.
- Don't hover. Researchers note that the presence of an intrusive adult inhibits interaction and conversation. Toddlers play in more sophisticated ways when adults are not in control. Your quiet presence, however, is reassuring.
- If possible, stay out of conflicts. Unless you see violence brewing, step back and give children over two-years-old a chance to resolve the conflict. If you have to intervene, try the problem-solving approach. Say something like, "There's one doll and you both want it. What can be done?" You might be surprised at how early on children are able to participate in solving their problems.
- Don't take their words too literally. At two and three, "You're not my friend" often means "I'm mad at you right now."
- Relax and enjoy yourself. Nurture and support your child's friendships, but don't push. Some babies and toddlers are attracted to other children and connect with them easily. Others may not make friends until much later.
WHAT IS A FRIEND?
THE REAL EXPERTS SPEAK
Hannah, three: "It's someone that's not you. It's a different person."
Sachi, three: "A friend is somebody's child."
Lili, two-and-a-half: "David."
Ilana, five: "It's somebody you play with."
Leah, three-and -a -half: "A friend is someone who loves you."
Ben, two: "Mommy!"
Copyright Ruth Mason, 2000