The Ups and Downs of Toddler Relationships

Even the youngest kids forge bonds and share interests.

What Does Friendship Look Like?

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 "It's the start of something that may become a more recognizable friendship in months and years to come."

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