Friendships: Why Are They So Important?

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Miriam Cohen’s Will I Have a Friend? is one of my favorite children’s books. In the story, little Jim is ready to start kindergarten, and as his father walks him to school on the first day, Jim asks, “Will I have a friend?” That simple question is a wonder and worry for many children, their parents, and their teachers. Whether it’s a big milestone year such as kindergarten, middle school, high school, or college, or just the everyday occurrences of playing outside or going to a birthday party, “Will I have a friend?” is a common question.

Friendships are an important part of childhood and growing up. They build a child’s sense of belonging and significance in their world, make a child feel cared for and cared about, and in turn teach them how to care for others. Healthy friendships play a key role in a child’s emotional growth and their development of important life skills.

I grew up in a small college town on a street with a group of neighborhood friends. Our parents were around, but when I think about playing in the neighborhood, I just remember my friends. Our ages ranged from young elementary through high school, and the older kids watched and guided the younger ones. We shared lots of experiences growing up in that neighborhood that taught us many things. We learned to compromise, deciding on which bike route to take around town. We learned how to think of others, pooling the exact change needed to buy one candy bar to split among us. We learned to talk and listen to each other, discussing our ideas for Halloween each year. We found out that when things didn’t go our way and we went home in a huff, life went on without us. And if we wanted to have fun and be a part of things, we had to return and try again. We learned how to make choices, take risks, and try new things. We learned how to work through disappointment when we lost at a game or were too young to go with the bigger kids somewhere. So much was learned through the ups and downs of friendships.

When it comes to friendships, not every child’s experience and opportunities are the same. Those days of just playing outside in the neighborhood with friends are fleeting. Children tend now to live much more structured and supervised lives: after-school childcare and rec center programs or organized sports and clubs. Older children may not have as much opportunity to just be kids because of caretaking responsibilities that fall to them, leaving school as their main place for friends. Regardless of how and where children develop and maintain friendships, having friends means having the opportunity to learn valuable life lessons.

As a counselor, I am often asked by teachers, parents, and even children, “When it comes to friends, what’s normal?” A child’s development follows a reasonably predictable pattern when it comes to their language, physical growth, and cognitive abilities. There are also predictable patterns in the way friendships develop. A child’s understanding of friendship deepens and broadens with age. These relationships move from simple, concrete interpretations—like the five-year-old who waves at a boy in the hall and then turns to tell me, “That’s my friend; he’s on my bus”—to more sophisticated ones—like the twelve-year old who starts to contemplate whether to continue being friends with someone who is not very nice to some of the other peers in their friend group.

Educational psychologist Robert Selman identified five stages of children’s friendships (shown below). These stages are fluid and not every child goes through them in exactly the same way, but it is a helpful guide to better understand what is considered typical at different ages and stages. “Will I have a friend?” isn’t the only question pondered when it comes to friendship. Do children have to have friends? Is it OK if children have only a few friends? What if they don’t have a best friend? What about imaginary friends? Is it OK if a child prefers to play alone? When friends squabble and fight, should an adult step in or let them work things out by themselves? While there are no simple or easy answers to these questions, there are some things to keep in mind when helping children navigate the world of friends.

Know What’s Normal

Young children’s friendships center around play. Researcher Mildred Parten identified six stages of play that children mature through: unoccupied, solitary, onlooker, parallel, associative, and cooperative (Rymanowicz, 2015; see also Rock, 2021). Understanding these stages can help you set up learning environments that support children as they move through these stages. Their older counterparts, tweens and adolescents, are very focused on and devoted to
their friends. They are aware of peer groups solidifying and worry about who is in and who is out, especially if it’s them. Relationships often feel topsy-turvy and it is hard for them to know whom to trust as they find their identity and place in their peer group. Recognizing the importance—sometimes extreme importance—they place on their friendships and providing opportunities for them to engage in positive ways with peers will enable you to help them navigate these ups and downs. Whether they are five years old or fifteen, children need adults to know when to step in and help, when to wait to be asked for help, and when to let children figure out things for themselves.

Help Them Grow and Stretch to the Next Level

When you know what’s normal, you’ll know what’s coming next. Ultimately, children will grow and mature to a place where they can accept themselves and others, share their friends, and handle the give and take of relationships. Along the way, we can help them by teaching and modeling the social, coping, and problem-solving skills they need to make and keep friends.

Social Skills

  • Turn-taking and cooperation
  • Empathy
  • Perspective taking
  • Listening and conversation skills
  • Inviting and joining in
  • Being a good sport
  • Friendliness, kindness, and hospitality
  • Expressing feelings and needs

Coping Skills

  • Handling emotions
  • Asking for help
  • Engaging in physical activities
  • Developing hobbies and interests

Problem-Solving Skills

  • Managing disagreements
  • Playing fair
  • Taking responsibility for oneself and actions
  • Making decisions

Allow for Differences

Sometimes we can only think the way that we are. For example, if I’m a social person, I think everyone else should be; if I have a lot of friends, I want others to as well; if I prefer to be alone, I think others do, too. When it comes to friendships, there’s a lot of room for differences. Some children may have many friends while others may have only one or two. There are children who may move through several different friendships and friend groups and those who may have had the same best friend since kindergarten. Children may also have wellspring years with many friends and drought years with few or no friends. What is important, though, is for children to have the following:

  1. The skills needed to make and keep friends. If children have these skills, then they will have the choice about the role that friendships play in their lives—the who, how, and when of friends.
  2. The opportunities to make and keep friends. School is an important place for this, especially for those children who may not have many opportunities outside of school for friendships to form.
  3. Trusted adults to help and support children to be successful in the social world.

One night after an awards ceremony at my daughter’s high school, we took her, her two friends, and my younger daughter for ice cream. The four of them sat at a table and laughed and talked together. I watched how they navigated joking and being silly— but not too silly. Laughing, but careful to be laughing with each other and not at each other. My older daughter including her younger sister and the younger sister taking risks to be part of the group, and all of the girls sharing the time, talking and listening so everyone had a voice in the conversation. I thought back to just a few years before, when my older daughter wouldn’t have been as welcoming of her younger sister joining in, and my younger daughter would have shied away from hanging with the older girls. The world of friends grows and changes just like children do.

Shaping Friendship After the Pandemic

A child’s social world is shaped by many things—a family’s beliefs and values, where they live, the family structure, the school they attend, individual personality. It’s hard then to say exactly how the changes brought on by the pandemic will affect children’s friendships. What we know is that for a long period children were spending time mainly with their own families and missing opportunities to engage with peers outside of their family system, which is an important piece in their development. The ways children typically connect with peers—sitting next to each other on the bus, talking at their lockers, playing together in the sandbox—have been disrupted by the pandemic.

During the fall of 2020, I had many children referred for counseling by parents and teachers because they felt the children were just acting or feeling out of sorts. What I heard from the children was that they felt like they had no friends. Viewing a classmate on a Zoom screen doesn’t give you the same opportunity to make a friend as sitting with them at a table group would, just as sitting at desks set six feet apart and coloring with your own box of crayons isn’t the same as laying on the floor on your bellies, talking, coloring, and sharing a bin of crayons. Although they were in a room full of other kids, these children felt lonely, and even at their young age they knew something wasn’t right about it. This was not how school was supposed to feel.

Loneliness wasn’t the only feeling that flourished in the pandemic. Fear was another one. It wasn’t just a fear of getting sick or losing loved ones, but also a fear that friends may have moved on and that they would have to try and make new friends. And it was a fear that the world of friends they had always known might have changed and would never go back to the way it was. Navigating the world of friends, even under normal circumstances, comes with bumps along the way. But the new challenges that the pandemic and its aftermath have brought makes this navigation more difficult. The good news is that children are resilient. With trusted adults in their corner, children will continue to figure out the world of friends.