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The Ups and Downs of Toddler Relationships

Halle Sweeter is only 2 years old, but her mom is convinced that her daughter has already made a best friend. "She asks for Emily by name and runs up and gives her a hug and kiss whenever she sees her," says Janice Sweeter, of Phoenix. "And Halle will ask about her later. She'll say to me, 'When go see Emily?'"

Is Mrs. Sweeter kidding herself? Can Halle's connection to Emily actually be called a friendship? In a word, yes. But until recently, many experts believed that children ages 1 to 3 were incapable of developing friendships, that all they're really doing is what's commonly referred to as "parallel play." You can plop them down next to each other, but they're not truly making a social connection. They're just playing individually, side by side.

Play Dates Are Meaning More

However, research conducted in the past five years or so has changed the way experts view child-to-child interaction. Social time for young children, particularly kids between 1 and 2, is as much a laboratory for experimentation and learning as it is a fun time to push toys around the room with a friend. When your little one has a play date, he learns from what the other child does, observes how he does it, and takes note of how the other child's actions impact the environment in which they play.

The bottom line: They don't express friendship in the same way an older child or an adult would, but they are forging a bond. "If you closely observe a couple of toddlers at play, you'll notice that while they may not roll a ball to each other or share toys, they watch one another carefully and mimic the other's actions," says Jana Murphy, author of The Secret Life of Toddlers (Perigee, 2004). They also reach for the same kinds of toys; in the best of all worlds, they express delight when they see one another.

Eighteen-month-old Ray Feinleib and 16-month-old Sasha Kleinman, both of Brooklyn, New York, shriek happily and say each other's names when they have play dates together. "They'll also bang on the coffee table together, for instance, or one will follow the other around," says Ray's mom, Rhonda. In a very fundamental way, young toddlers are drawn to other kids who like the same things that they do, even if it's something as simple as banging on a table, "and that's the root of building a friendship," says Sally Goldberg, PhD, author of Constructive Parenting (Allyn & Bacon, 2001) and the director of DrSallyParenting.com. "It's the start of something that may become a more recognizable friendship in months and years to come."

Fast and Furious Friends

Before you run off and invite a herd of 18-month-olds over, there's a bit to keep in mind when you're dealing with very young children in social situations. First and foremost, kids this age have a pretty limited sense of empathy.

"Toddlers definitely have some caveman-like qualities," jokes Harvey Karp, MD, author of The Happiest Toddler on the Block (Bantam, 2003). One minute a young child could be smiling and handing a truck to a playmate, and the next, clubbing him over the head with his blocks.

Sharing Problems

Their primary focus, according to Dr. Karp, is to experiment with the people and objects around them. Social graces such as sharing or apologizing are not a priority. "Toddlers are not able to look at another child and think, 'Gee, he's really enjoying that toy right now. I'll just wait until he's finished,'" says Murphy.

A more likely outcome? He'll grab the toy from the playmate, "which may result in some hitting or biting," observes Michele Sanderson, program coordinator for the A. Sophie Rogers Laboratory School at Ohio State University, which studies the social interaction of toddlers.

Short Attention Spans

To top it all off, your average toddler has the attention span of an impatient housefly. "They have a hard time focusing on any one thing for too long," Sanderson says. Jen Wesley, of New York City, has observed this with her 16-month-old, Tess, on play dates.

"She's not as interested in imaginary play with the other kid as she is in what's she's doing that moment." So it's unreasonable to expect a couple of toddlers to engage in make-believe play or build a block tower together; they can't sit still long enough to do it.

Timing Is Everything

Though it may sound like any meeting between a couple of little kids is destined for disaster, that's not the case, and it doesn't mean that children in this age group are incapable of initiating friendships. But in order to make these interactions a success, you and the playmate's mom are going to have to do a little work.

  • Time it properly. This is your most important move. Both play-date participants need to be fed and rested so the date doesn't get off to a cranky start.
  • Limit participants. When it comes to toddler play, less is more. Very young children tend to do better in groups of two, which reduces the chances that someone will get overstimulated.
  • Have back-up. Since children this age love to imitate one another, try having several copies of favorite toys so they can easily mimic each other and won't have to squabble over who gets the truck. The items needn't be identical, just similar.

"Help, Mom!"

But once you've covered all the bases, that still doesn't mean you and the play date's mom can sit idly by. To make the experience as positive as possible, you and the other parent need to help things move smoothly. For example, you could help your child learn to share by giving him two similar toys and helping him give one to his friend so relinquishing a plaything isn't so painful.

And if squabbles over sharing toys erupt, you need to be there to move the kids on to another activity. Don't be overly concerned if the little social butterflies' interactions flutter to a halt after 30 minutes or so; and if someone melts down and needs to leave, it's fine to cut things short.

Let's Get Together

From about 2 to 3, you'll notice big changes in your toddler's social development. Perhaps most dramatic is the demonstration of true empathy in older toddlers. "Kids this age have a sense of loyalty," says Sanderson. "If another child gets hurt, a toddler or preschooler will pat him to make him feel better."

And at this age, a child understands the basic concept of sharing, even if he's not an expert at it quite yet. Susan Poncy, of West Palm Beach, Florida, has noticed lately that her daughter, Nadia, 2, likes to encourage her 4-year-old brother to share his toys. "She understands the principle, but once she gets his toy, she doesn't want to give it up," Poncy says.

Close Buddies

Though they still won't have the kinds of friendships you see in elementary school-age children, older toddlers and preschoolers have the emotional and cognitive skills to show real affection for other kids and to prefer one child to another.

"They pair up with other children who share their interests. But they also choose friends with whom they have a real emotional connection," says Sanderson. And, like younger kids, they imitate each other, but on a more sophisticated level. Instead of banging on tables together, they'll put on similar dress-up clothes or have their dolls do the same silly dance.

You'll also see the duo try to find private spaces where they can share intimacy. Child development specialists call this "fort building." They'll find a small space where just the two of them can sit and play together. They also know how to make each other laugh -- and get on each other's last nerves.

While all of this sounds worlds away from the caveman-like encounters of younger kids, children in this age range still need supervision on play dates. Inevitably there will be struggles over toys, or one child will push the other's buttons a little too hard.

Consistent Supervision -- and Fun

Once your child starts getting along well with another child, set up play opportunities consistently with the other family and take turns between the two houses. It gives your child a sense of security to go to a familiar place with people he knows and trusts, so he's less likely to get frightened and act up.

Semi-organized play is also a good idea; finger painting and decorating paper with stickers are both activities young kids can do together with individual results. It's also important to keep in mind that older toddlers and preschoolers are boundless fonts of energy. If that energy isn't expelled, crankiness is bound to rear its head. A playground or indoor-gym play date where kids can chase each other around, take turns on some things (the slide), and have others all to themselves (the swings) are good ways to make play dates positive for everyone involved.

Deborah Baer is a writer in Brooklyn, New York.

Originally published in the April 2005 issue of American Baby magazine.