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Making Friends: How to Raise Kind and Caring Kids

We all want our children to have good friends—and to be a good friend to others. But friendship doesn’t have the same meaning to a toddler as it does to an adult.

“In the early years, it’s less about the friendships themselves and more about parents fostering and modeling the social skills children will need to become a good friend later in life,” notes KinderCare Education’s Linda Nelson, a senior advisor to our quality and accreditation team and an early childhood education expert. “These abilities—such as empathy, emotional self-control, and understanding what it means to share—develop over time.”

Here’s what you can do to help your child grow into positive peer relationships, from floor to four:

Photo by Rob and Julia Campbell / Stocksy United / 833298
Photo by Rob and Julia Campbell / Stocksy United

Birth to 9 months

Children are learning…to interact. Infants come into the world interested in connecting: They coo at you and you babble back, or they wiggle their fingers and you wave back. Often called serve and return, these responsive interactions build strong neural connections.

Support social skills by… Cuddling and chatting to build a solid emotional foundation. Infants learn by imitation, so it’s also helpful to model positive connections in your everyday life: ask your partner about his day, or offer to share a snack with a friend.

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9 to 18 months

Children are learning…parallel play. This type of play is when children play nearby each other, but alone. They may show interest in another child’s activities, but developmentally, they aren’t yet able to work together toward a common goal like building a block tower.

Support social skills by… Helping your child begin the process of thinking about others. Toddlers understand far more than they can express, so provide the language for positive interactions by narrating what’s happening or possibly facilitating connections: It looks like Henry is looking for blue blocks—maybe we can help him find some.

Photo by Amanda Worrall / Stocksy United / 475901
Photo by Amanda Worrall / Stocksy United

18 months to 2 years

Children are learning… awareness of self and others. You’ll likely hear more me and mine around this time, but children may also show more interest in what others are doing and the beginning of the capacity for empathy.

Support social skills by… Modeling the language of perspective-taking. This age-group is starting to understand notions of cause and effect, so you can help build empathy with a little gentle coaching: I see that you’d like to play with that doll, but Lily was already playing with it and she is sad that you took it away. Let’s see if we can find another doll to play with.

Photo by Rob and Julia Campbell / Stocksy United / 610537
Photo by Rob and Julia Campbell / Stocksy United

2 to 3 years

Children are learning…about independence. Two-year-olds have a strong sense of autonomy and desire for some control in their world. They also can have very strong emotions, but lack the words to express those feelings—this can inspire big reactions when dealing with issues related to, say, sharing, a concept they don’t often choose to practice on their own fruition until around age 7 or 8.

Support social skills by… Offering language for expressing emotions: I can see that you are feeling frustrated that Connor took your dinosaur. You can also model calm, polite, and patient emotional regulation when waiting for your turn at the grocery store or driving in heavy traffic.

Photo by Bo Bo / Stocksy United / 774851
Photo by Bo Bo / Stocksy United

3 to 4 Years

Children are learning…to form attachments. Your child might begin to refer to a specific child as her friend, but it will most likely be based on similarities (“We both like bunnies!”) or whoever is nearby—and those “friends” may shift from hour to hour. Play is still mostly parallel, but they’ll probably show more interest in other children and possibly replicate their actions.

Support social skills by… Providing your child with a wide variety of opportunities for interaction, from childcare to playing at the park or children’s museum and having playdates.

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4 to 5 Years

Children are learning…to play cooperatively. Your child is finally ready to begin forming longer-lasting friendships, although they still may change on a regular basis. He will have more curiosity about others and their ideas, and may find that it’s more fun to work with another child to achieve the same goal.

Support social skills by… Offering a little guidance about being considerate of others, especially as children start experimenting with roles such as leader and follower. Feel free to get in on the play: Your words can be a lot more meaningful when you are participating rather than simply intervening or correcting. That said, it’s also okay to step back and let your child explore the ins and outs of his budding friendships himself.

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