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The Beginnings of Friendship

Starting on an equal footing

"Man is a social animal," they say. To survive in a society, one must be able to reach out and establish a bond with other people, extending beyond one's family circle. As adults, we tend to take friendships and our ability to form them for granted. But consider a life without friends. In a word, unimaginable. Can you remember the day you made your first friend or even who that person was? Probably not.  

A child's first friendship could be said to be her first foray into society. This is a whole new ball game for her. Her parents are her guides and protectors, her safety nets. Her siblings are sometimes her teachers and sometimes her tormentors. But a friendship normally begins on an equal footing, a relationship of give-and-take, of two-way traffic, irrespective of what it ultimately evolves into. It is a relationship with a person she has been drawn to, with whom she can explore, experiment learn about the world and make mistakes with. A friend is a person, like her, who is beginning from square one. Even though everyone was a child once, but as an adult it is difficult to slip into the shoes of a child once again. Parents and siblings can never take the place of friends of the same age and vice versa. Every relationship has a unique place in life and performs a unique function. 

The evolution of friendship

At what age can you expect your child to be social? Before two years of age, a child is too busy staring wide-eyed at the world around her, trying to take it all in. Her family fills her little world. While her immediate family stays a constant presence, all the time there are new faces and happenings to absorb. She is too young and immature to build a relationship with her peers. However, once she is two years old, she is ready to make her debut in society. 

When parents put a couple of two-year old together to play, they may not think so. What they will probably observe is two toddlers pottering about with their respective toys without even acknowledging each other's presence. But parents should not despair, because even though the children seem to engage in parallel play, they are actually learning from each other through imitation. Toddlers can imitate a whole new sequence of actions from their peers and in this way absorb new skills. If parents observe two toddlers 'playing' together closely, they will see one toddler build a tower of blocks in the same manner as the other had without seeming to interact at all. 

That is about all that you can expect from a relationship between two-year-olds. Between the ages of three and six, children's ability to relate to their peers takes a tiny step forward. In the case of boys, it is the age to vent their aggression. Parents are most likely to see their little boys locked in combat, rolling around the floor, wrestling with other boys and generally indulging in horseplay. Girls, on the other hand, are more likely to tease and provoke each other and giggle at every opportunity. This is the time when children are initiated into the world of give-and take. It is important that children should not be isolated for whatever reason. Spoiled and overprotected children will have a difficult time. 

Between the ages of six and nine, children begin to form friendships in the conventional sense. Children begin to form small groups. They get attached to particular children and want to spend all their time together with their special friends. They are possessive about their special friends and deeply hurt when a friend shows a preference for another. Group dynamics can be observed. Some children are admired, some bullied and others excluded. This is the time a child will learn the demands of closeness and the need to be sensitive to others' feelings. 

Aggression and bullying

When two children get together, it need not necessarily be all sweetness and light. Just like adults, they just may not get on. One child may be particularly aggressive, while the other might cower in response. Given this scenario, most parents tend to jump into the fray, but this could backfire, as they are likely to reinforce their child's imbalanced behaviour by their intervention. The parent of the aggressor is likely to reprimand her child with the aim of putting a stop to her aggression. At the same time, she probably resents the other parent for expressing her anger. The aggressive child senses her parent's overreaction and increases her aggression. The parent of the docile child will either angrily exhort her child to fight back at a time when she is not capable, or play the role of the protector. The parent's anger and embarrassment will drive home the docile child's sense of helplessness and inadequacy. 

Parents should leave their children to hammer out the situation on their own. The minute parents step into the picture, it becomes an adult situation. However, if the children cannot cope even after being left to their own devices, then parents should steer them towards playmates of a similar temperament. Children are more likely to learn from playmates of a similar temperament. If parents of a docile child push her to be more aggressive or gregarious, they are merely giving her the message that they do not approve of her the way she is. Parents of aggressive children will find that when such children are thrown together with other aggressors, they are likely to become bosom buddies as aggression on both sides somehow balances out. 

Bullies are insecure children who combat their insecurity through aggression. Bullying behaviour tend to fall into a vicious circle. Children distance themselves from bullies and as the bullies are more and more isolated, their insecurity increases and so do their bullying tactics in an attempt to hide their vulnerability. Parents of bullies should try to bolster their self-image, but at the same time they should make it clear that bullying behaviour is unacceptable. They should try to make their children understand that often children tease each other in an attempt to get to know each other better and that if one can take some ribbing and teasing sportingly, one is likely to make a great deal of friends. 

Healthy interaction equals healthy development

Parents should ideally leave their children to find their own feet. The less the adult involvement, the more the children are likely to learn about each other and themselves. They should be left free to make their own judgements and mistakes. The quantity and quality of a child's friendships is a good indicator of her mental and emotional well-being. In all likelihood, a child who is shunned or ostracized by her peers is sending out a message spelling out anxiety, self-doubt or some kind of turmoil. Sometimes children can be more sensitive and perceptive than adults. They can tell the difference between a child that is upset by some immediate circumstance and one that is chronically happy. In the latter case, children react by staying away because they are threatened by these feelings. When a child cannot establish bonds with her peers, it means that something is fundamentally wrong and needs parental attention.

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