First friendships play an important role in the social and emotional development of your child. Typically, these first friendships are formed through interactions in preschool and kindergarten. Most children aged four to seven understand that a friend is someone with whom you enjoy playing. They can tell you a friend is someone “who likes you.” The concept of a long-term, lasting friendship at this young age has yet to develop though. That is why you might hear your child talk about Daniel being his best friend one day and his antagonist the next.

Interactions between young friends is important even if children do not understand the more mature, enduring aspects of friendship. Friends play together in a more cooperative and emotionally expressive way than do nonfriends. The talking, laughing, and looking at each other between friends provide complex interactions that build social skills and nurture social support. Friends also offer a secure foundation and level of comfort from which to build new friendships. Perhaps this is why children who start kindergarten with a few friends or have the ability to make new friends adjust to school more easily. Kindergartners who can develop friendships integrate themselves into the classroom, which fosters both academic and social competence.

Parents have an influence on their children’s peer sociability both directly and indirectly. Children depend on their parents to help them make rewarding peer connections. For example, parents who arrange informal play days or activities for their preschooler are directly helping their child establish and learn about friendship. By providing play opportunities, parents teach their child how to initiate contact with a potential friend and how to be good “hosts” when consideration is given to the needs of fellow playmates. Preschoolers who are provided with these opportunities to make peer associations tend to have a larger peer group and greater social skills.

Indirectly, parenting behaviors also influence a child’s ability to forge new friendships and develop important social skills. Parent-child play is particularly effective for promoting the skills of interaction necessary for making friends. For example, more positive peer relationships are associated with parents who are involved, emotionally positive, and engage in cooperative play with their preschooler. Children who make friends easily have emotionally responsive parents.

Meaningful relationships are one of the basic ingredients to long-term happiness.

As a parent, you can model for and teach your child the skills necessary for creating these meaningful relationships. Directly and indirectly, you influence your child’s ability to relate well to others, to be a part of a group, and to have the capacity for compassion and empathy.