Circle of Friends

Forging Friendships

Hugging Friends

Kaysh Shinn

In the first year, your baby's social network is made up mainly of adults. Still, that's not to say babies aren't interested in other tiny people. If you put two 6-month-olds together, they're likely to be curious about each other, says Claire Lerner, child development specialist with Zero to Three, a child advocacy organization in Washington, D.C. "One baby may want to get closer to the other baby and feel his face, in an attempt to figure out 'Who is this other person?'"

As your baby can do more things, he shows his interest in other kids by mimicking what they're doing. For instance, your 1-year-old will start banging on a drum, and his playmate will do the same. The kids are not interacting, and it may not look like much is going on, but watching and imitating is a primitive way of saying, "I like you."

As kids get close to age 2, there may be more interaction, but, unfortunately, not always the kind you want. One 2-year-old may grab another's toy, not possessing the language skills to say, "Can I play with that?" Whereas before you might have been able to resolve a toy dispute by dangling another plaything in front of one of them, now distraction is not an option.

By age 2, a child learns that items and ownership are important. He might be very possessive of his things, not wanting other children to touch them. But he's not only territorial about his own toy box. In his egocentric mind, he believes that anything that looks good is his for the taking. "So when you tell a child this age, 'You need to share,' you might as well be speaking gibberish," Gouley says. Parents may wonder if playgroups or playdates are even worth the trouble -- but it's through experience that kids eventually learn the give-and-take of friendship. "You need to teach sharing, and they learn to share through practice," Gouley adds.

So when can you expect your child to understand the concept? The skill can be worked on between ages 2 and 3, but Gouley believes that many parents expect too much too soon. "It's a long process," she says. "These children are just starting to gain some ability to control their behavior and impulses."

When language explodes, around 2 1/2 to 3, friendships often take off as well, because now kids have the vocabulary to negotiate who is going to do what. "That's when they can say, 'Okay, who wants to be the princess? Who is going to use the sword?'" Lerner says. When negotiations break down -- both kids covet the role of princess, or both want to use the (plastic) sword -- you'll still need to play referee and help guide them to a compromise. Ideally, you'll be able to engage both children in finding a solution because their involvement will make it more likely that they'll follow through.

Don't worry if your child doesn't yet possess the skills to initiate a game. Many kids still need parents to start an activity: "Do you guys want to play T-ball? Why don't you each have three turns at bat, then you can try to catch the ball."

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