There are few things more valuable in life than a truly good friend: someone who is loyal, generous and dependable, who gives you strength during hard times and celebrates with you during good times. Having even one friend like this can make life infinitely better.
Educators and families can help raise the next generation of fantastic friends. Like all positive character traits, the foundational skills necessary to be a good friend can be taught and nurtured in young children.
That’s why the Primrose Schools® Balanced Learning® curriculum includes the Primrose Friends, 12 puppets who represent qualities that are important for children to develop, including generosity, cooperation, fairness and respect. One Friend, Erwin® the dog, is all about friendship, but each Friend embodies positive traits that help children build meaningful relationships.
At Primrose, we believe that who children become is as important as what they know, and that the earliest years of life are a great opportunity to lay the foundation of kindness, empathy, generosity, respect and other friendship skills.
Families can help children build friendship muscles at home, too. Here’s how:
1. Model the kind of friend you want your child to be.
Children are always watching and mimicking adults’ behavior, so try to be the kind of friend you want them to grow up to be.
“Be sure to demonstrate active listening, patience and politeness in your interactions, and show kindness whenever possible,” says Lynn Louise Wonders, an early childhood development expert. “Avoid gossip, name-calling and bad-mouthing others, even if you think your children aren’t listening.”
You can also bring your child along when you do something for a friend, such as dropping off a meal when they’re sick or taking their dog for a walk on a day when the friend is especially busy. Talk to your child about how helping your friends is a way to show love and care.
2. Practice using emotion language to build empathy.
Do you have a friend you feel comfortable confiding in, even when your feelings are difficult or embarrassing? That person has probably mastered empathy, the ability to understand and relate to the feelings of another person.
We can grow empathy skills in our children by talking about emotions, both our own and others’. At Primrose schools, teachers are trained to lead the children in using emotion vocabulary. Dr. Lauren Starnes, vice president of early childhood education, research and development for Primrose Schools, gives this example of what a teacher might say to a student having trouble sharing: “I see you want the ball and you are frustrated and angry that Malika has the ball. But taking the ball from Malika would make Malika sad, and I can see Malika is sad because she has tears in her eyes. What can we do to make you happy and make Malika happy? Can we share the ball?”
This kind of narrative helps children develop the ability to empathize with others’ feelings.
3. Put a premium on kindness and generosity in everyday life.
Like adults, children feel empowered and proud when they help someone else. It is important to help children find opportunities to practice being generous. At Primrose schools, we focus on giving without expectation throughout our curriculum and make generosity a tangible concept as children participate in events such as our annual Caring and Giving Food Drive.
You can help your child develop a foundation of kindness and generosity. Look for opportunities you and your child can pursue together, whether it’s volunteering for a community service organization or helping an elderly neighbor with yardwork.
“Children need the experience of what it is to give to the greater good and what it does for them emotionally,” Starnes says. “When children start to internalize that motivation, they’re more likely to do the right thing with or without a reminder.”
4. Expose your children to people who are different from them.
True friends accept — and celebrate — what makes them different. Children can build these skills early when they see diversity in their family, school and community. This might be diversity of appearance, experience, worldview or any other personal trait. What matters is that children learn to view differences as a positive part of life.
At Primrose schools, teachers guide children in talking about the customs and traditions of each student’s family, and how those celebrations are similar and different — and all equally special.
Families can help in a couple of ways: one, by exposing their children to new people and experiences, and two, by talking about differences in things like skin color and physical ability. It’s normal and healthy for children to notice that people look, act or behave differently than they do.
“It is important to discuss similarities and differences in people with young children openly and honestly. These conversations affirm a child’s self-identity and help the child develop a strong self-concept and confidence in who the child is,” Starnes says.
Of course, being a good friend takes practice, and it isn’t always easy for adults, let alone small children. That’s why we focus on fostering positive character traits in our classrooms every day, and why it’s important for families do the same at home.
To help develop friendship skills in your child, check out our Primrose Friends video series. For more about building character in children, read: