I read some interesting articles this weekend from Vtech who have been working with leading family psychologist and development expert Dr. Angharad Rudkin in line with the launch of their new Toot-Toot Friends range which includes the Busy Sounds Discovery Home which I saw myself at Dream Toys and it featured in the Dream Toys top 12. I wasn’t surprised!One of life’s most important skills for children which develops early on is to socialise and make friends. Something that is so important and key to everyday life and a skill that will stay with you and be needed throughout your whole life. From the moment of birth baby’s prefer human faces rather than drawings of faces and they turn towards their mother’s voice, suggesting that they are innately wired to be with other people. As children become toddlers they use this innate sociability to make connections with others. Learning how to make friends is one of life’s most important skills and it is one that develops very early on. This was so interesting for me to watch as Oscar started school as he chose who he wanted to play with instead of before he would just play with our friends children. I found it fascinating how two little children were drawn together to play and be ‘best friends’.
There are some important things we can do as parents to help our pre-schoolers have a positive experience of making friends. Firstly, we have to understand that pre-school children do not think in the way that older children do. Their brains are still rapidly developing and so they see things differently. For example, pre-school children will find it very hard to take on another person’s perspective. This is called ‘egocentrism’ and it means that it can be hard for little children to understand why other children don’t want to play a game their way or play with a certain toy right now. Because of this, pre-schoolchildren often spend a lot of time playing on their own or engaged in ‘parallel play’ (where they areplaying alongside, but not with, their friend). This does not mean that your child is unsociable or has some difficulties in socialising. Even when they are playing alone, children can still learn about socialising. For example, play sets such as the VTech Toot-Toot friends allow children to learn about social skills such as turn taking and communicating. They are just being small children who can only take short bursts of playing together before needing some time alone.
Oscar playing with his friend
Children are born with different temperaments. Often, these temperaments are reflections of their parents. So, for example a confident, chatty mum is more likely to have a confident, chatty child. When this is the case, it is relatively straightforward for a mum to support their child in making friends, because they do it in a similar way. It can be less straightforward however when a confident, chatty mum has a quiet, shy child. It is harder for the mum to know how to guide their child, as the strategies they use will not be the same as the ones their child will benefit from. It is particularly important in this case to for mums to accept their child for who they are (even if they do feel quite frustrated by their child’s shyness) and to get support and advice from the other parent, other family members and friends.
If your child is quiet and observant, you will need to take particular care in how you introduce them into new social settings. Expect them to want to sit on your knee and hold on to you for the first few times. Stay positive and encourage them to join in. If they don’t want to join in, chat to them about what the other children are doing so that your child remains interested. As your child “warms up” they will be happier to move away from you and play with other children, and once they have built up some friendships in that setting, they will feel far more comfortable. Regular and predictable play sessions are important. Quiet children are often attracted to more confident louder children, as they can be taken charge of, and these children find it easier to join a game in a passive role initially.
Confident children who are natural leaders can play with other confident leaders, but expect quite a few power struggles during these games, as both children try to take the dominant position. The majority of learning at this age occurs through watching and imitation. So, it is very important that you model positive friendships to your child from the very start. If you are someone who finds it hard to make friends, it can be difficult to build up a strong network of mum friends around you. This gets easier with practice though and not only does it mean that you have a supportive network but it also means that your child is learning a very valuable lesson. Children who grow up seeing their parents have positive friendships that – even if they are going through a rough patch – involve time together, having fun and caring are more likely to build up those positive friendships themselves.
When it comes to arranging time for your child to spend with their friends, remember to keep it short. Small children get tired very quickly, and it is much nicer to end a playdate on a high than wait until both children have melted into sobbing heaps. Finally, don’t expect the path towards friendship to run smoothly. There are a lot of mistakes to be made, and these are necessary for children to grow into adults who know what to do and what not to do when it comes to making friends. Even very good pre-school friends will frequently squabble and fight. Your refereeing will help your child to learn the essential skills of turn taking and negotiating.
As Oscar is 5 now how he plays with children has changed massively in the last two years. He now has best friends and instead of playing with lots of different groups of children he stays with his little group and his ‘best friends’. ‘Best friends’ mean different things to different people. It can be the person that you turn to as soon as something bad happens, or it can be the person that you do fun things with. Whatever it means to you as an adult there’s a good chance your child will have a very different idea! A best friend to a toddler may be someone who plays the same games that they do, or someone who they see twice a week, or someone who they look like. They will talk about their best friend a lot, want to say goodnight to them as they go to sleep, or want to have things that their best friend does.
As every adult knows, even best friends can be annoying or bewildering. However, a best friend is someone who is there through thick and thin, and who doesn’t hold a grudge. The same is true for little children. They won’t always get on with their best friends, and in fact may squabble with them quite a bit. However, their connection means that they make up easily and are quick to forget what made them cross. Children can also rehearse how to make up with friends by playing with dolls or figures such as the VTech Toot-Toot friends. Children, for example, can pretend that the Toot-Toot friends have had a disagreement before helping them to make up. Such imaginary play helps children to build up their confidence in making and keeping friends.
Another thing I have learnt is that Oscar mimics our behaviour and sometimes you forget this but they learn most of what they know in the home and showing children positive behaviour in the home is so important! Pre-school children learn through watching and imitating. They will repeat what they have heard from home and will adopt their parents views very quickly. That’s why it is so important that parents act in the way they would like their child to. If you are a tolerant, curious and open minded person then your child is more likely to be too. Pre-school children are full of “why?” questions. Often these questions will be about why someone looks different or does something different. Answer these questions honestly and if you don’t know the answer or you’re a bit flummoxed then it’s absolutely fine to say “you know what, I don’t know. I’ll have a think about it and then we can chat about it more, later on this afternoon”.
Children are being brought up in increasingly multi-cultural societies. The globalisation of family life means that, more than any other time, children are being exposed to people from different countries, cultures, religions, ethnicities and abilities. Helping your child to tolerate and accept difference is an important part of parenting in the 21st century. Being the same as someone is comforting to a little child. Help your child to understand that although someone might look different, talk differently, dress differently or just do things differently, there are still a lot of similarities. Encourage your child to spend time with a wide variety of people so that they can build up their confidence. Children can also learn about difference by playing with a variety of toys. The VTech Toot-Toot friends for example are a mix of boys and girls, all of whom have different strengths. While playing with all of these characters, children learn what it feels like to be each one and empathise with them. Children will then transfer this experience into their day to day interactions with others. As children’s brains grow, they become more aware that others can have different views and ideas about things and this can be quite frightening for a child. Most children will naturally steer their way through these feelings by experiencing situations where they learn to negotiate, take turns, compromise and communicate. All of these skills are essential for forming friendships throughout life and they also contribute to a child’s sense of belief in themselves and their abilities.
Children have a strong need to fit in, to be a part of a peer group and to be accepted. This need increases throughout childhood and reaches its peak in adolescence. When they are young, children try to fit in by being like other children, they may want to dress like them, talk like them or do the same things as them. As a parent you need to acknowledge this need to be like others in order to fit in, but also help your child to understand that they are loved and accepted for who they are, as someone unique. Use story books or TV programmes to start conversations with your child about differences and similarities and how it is important to accept yourself. Embrace your child’s individuality – just because you think pink spots and red stripes don’t go together, it doesn’t mean your child does. Let them explore and experiment – then they will grow up to be more in tune and more accepting of who they really are.
I hope you found this as interesting as I did and it gives you some hints and tips to help your little ones to socialize and make friends.