Does your toddler have a best friend? Does he constantly gush over his new best buddy? (which is, quite possibly, the cutest thing ever)? While researchers used to believe toddlers from 1 to 3 years of age were incapable of developing friendships, recent studies have changed the way experts view child-to-child interaction. So when a toddler says someone is their best friend, it could mean a lot more than you thought.
By this point, your toddler has likely grown out of "parallel play," which is the act of two toddlers (usually 2 to 3 years old) sitting next to each other playing but not actually playing together, according to Parents magazine. Essentially, while your toddler will not express friendship in the same way an older child or an adult would, they are in fact forging a bond with their friends. Jana Murphy, author of The Secret Life of Toddlers, told Parents, "If you closely observe a couple of toddlers at play, you will 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." That, my friends, is the start of a beautiful friendship.
But as toddlers grow and practice their burgeoning communication skills and observe social interactions with other children, what is actually going on in your toddler's mind when he says, "I have a best friend"? Let's take a deeper look.
1. I'm curious
Toddlers, particularly by the age of 5, are genuinely curious about each other. In an article for Scholastic, education experts noted, "They ask questions about their classmates, experiment with friendships, and experience the joy of sharing an activity with another child. This curiosity of others and the relationships they can create together empowers toddlers (till age 5) to take the risk and spontaneously attempt to make connections with others. While they are often clumsy with their initial attempts at engagement, kindergartners are rarely daunted!"
2. I want attention; I want to belong
At the end of the day, most of us want to belong to someone or something, so this is relatable. Toddlers will try anything just to be noticed by another child. In the same article for Scholastic, education experts wrote, "You have probably seen children walk by children building with blocks, for example, and purposefully knock their tower down-just to get attention! It's not a very successful technique for friendship building, but it does get a reaction and a level of communication has to take place." Instead, help your toddler by suggesting ways he can ask his companions if they can play, or suggest they build something else nearby.
3. I'm learning to be empathetic
It's never too early to learn a little empathy, which is an important part of friendship. By kindergarten age, your child has the basics of sharing down and will begin to be able to see another point of view, though it's usually within the context of how it effects him personally. That said, you gotta start somewhere! Children's friendships take on a deeper sense of commitment when they learn to be empathetic, according to Scholastic.
4. We like the same things
Sally Goldberg, Ph.D., author of Constructive Parenting and the director of DrSallyParenting.com, told Parents that 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. That's the root of building a friendship. It's the start of something that may become a more recognizable friendship in months and years to come."
5. I'm developing my own identity
As young as 5 years old, children have a stronger sense of identity within a group than ever before. They are learning how to speak up for themselves and to express their own special interests and style, said the education experts at Scholastic. This delightfully growing sense of self-awareness allows children to actively experiment with the roller coaster ride of friendship. As children explore relationships with others, they are developing their own friendship identities.