Words: Emma Howarth
From the hazy days of early parenthood where a shared smile over infant wails can be sanity saving, to navigating your child’s first foray into play dates, the highs and lows of friendship are right up there on the parental agenda. Whether you’re expecting a baby this autumn, knee-deep in the toddler party circuit, packing your four-year-old off to school or simply bracing yourself for the friendship angst of a new academic year, we’ve got tips for every step of the way.
Early Days (0-2)
Anyone who’s been there, done that and got the sick-stained t-shirt knows friends are a post-partum lifeline. And while it’s cute to pretend your six-month-old loves playing with little Milo next door, babies this young couldn’t care less – these friends are for you.
Lack of social support is a well-established risk factor for post-natal depression and a study by the NSPCC found some 57 per cent of women admitted to feeling isolated in the eight weeks following birth. Child-free mates might love popping round for a cuddle, but most are straight out the door when the witching hour hits. In this brave new world of sleep-deprived delirium, finding your tribe is key.
And the tribe you need most, especially when pregnant with your first baby, is one in exactly the same boat. Babies change so quickly in the first year, that even a few weeks’ difference can feel like a developmental void. So fear not if the mothers you find yourself comparing bumps with don’t like the same music, or don’t work in the same industry, because as long as they are also agonising over the contents of newborn nappies, you really won’t give a toss.
NCT classes have long been the middle-class way to prepare for birth and make friends with parents who are expecting at the time same, but there are lots of other options, from online forums like Mumsnet to hip mum groups, such as Mothers’ Meeting, Mum’s the Word and Mama Social, and free apps like Mush and Peanut that use Tinder-style algorithms to match potential mum mates.
“Becoming a mother can be all sorts of crazy,” says Michelle Kennedy, founder of friendship app Peanut. “It can be amazing and fulfilling. It can also be isolating. Finding people who are on the same page makes the challenges more manageable.”
Katie Massey-Taylor, co-founder of Mush, couldn’t agree more. She says: “My top tips are: 1. If in doubt, go out. 2. Don’t dismiss women as potential friends just because you feel you might not have got on with them before you had a baby. 3. Don’t be lonely. Finding someone to chat to can be life-saving.”
No matter how grateful you are to the crew that gets you through the first couple of years of motherhood, it’s not unusual for some of these friendships to fall by the wayside as your babies get older or you go back to work or move house. But more often that not, you’ll find that bonds formed over mashed banana, cracked nipples and stitched-up perineums are bonds for life.
Nursery, pre-school and toddler classes galore mean the opportunities for the under-fives to socialise with their peers are greater than ever. Most children this age engage in ‘parallel play’, so they’ll play alongside other children but not necessarily with them. And as anyone who’s knee-deep in the three-nager stage will attest, they don’t all grasp the concept of sharing, taking turns or not whacking each other over the head with plastic trucks at the same time, which can make for a tricky couple of years.
Friendship for children at this age is very much about learning the social interaction ropes. Some children do form strong bonds at pre-school, but most won’t until much later in their development, so don’t worry if your child prefers to hover around the edges of social situations.“
Childhood friends can enable socialisation, encourage exploration of ourselves, others and the world around us, prompt imagination, and boost confidence and self-esteem,” says child counsellor and CBBC advisor Chavala Parker. “By subjecting ourselves to the trial and error of life, we learn what’s socially acceptable by picking up on cues from those around us.”
One of the best things about this stage of friendship, though, is that you still call the shots. Pre-schoolers are a few years away from awkward play-date demands at pick-up time, which leaves you free to find out which friends work best for both of you. And unlike the baby stage, it no longer matters if children are not exactly the same age, in fact, it might be preferable.
“Young children develop normal social and emotional skills when they have access to other kids to play with,” says anthropologist Gwen Dewar, founder of evidence-based parenting site Parenting Science. “But those kids don’t have to be exactly the same age – children might be better off when they aren’t the same age.”
So now is the time to experiment, mix things up and see what works. Children who bring out the best in your pre-schooler should go straight to the top of the repeat invite list. And, while you won’t get on with every mother of every child, if you find one who shares your approach to rules, discipline and whether Hula Hoops count as a meal, you’ve struck gold.
As your children spread their wings and start school, they’ll no doubt find many new friends, but if you’ve found yourself a kindred mum spirit amid the pre-school madness, you’ll probably still be WhatsApping each other photos of Ryan Gosling in five year’s time.
Starting School (4-7)
This is the big one. Although many Reception class children are still fairly fluid in their friendships, playing with one child one day and a group of others the next, some will start to show preferences for certain children in their class at school. This can spell the beginning of friendship troubles for some, so it pays to equip yourself and your child with the skills needed to navigate any difficulties.
There’s plenty you can do to ease your child’s introduction to primary school friendships. Taking advantage of any settling-in sessions on offer, arranging meet-ups with other parents before your child starts school, or suggesting a trip to the park at pick-up time during the first week are all good ice-breakers. And be ready to help your child cope with the ups and downs of friendship while they find their feet in this new environment.
“The children most likely to make friends tend to be extroverted, have easygoing temperaments and good control over their impulses,” says Dewar. “That doesn’t mean you can – or should – try to transform an introverted child into a laid-back extrovert. But it highlights the things we can do to help children develop friendships, such as encouraging aggressive children to find other ways to negotiate for what they want. We should also talk to children about how other people’s minds work. Recent research suggests that children are less likely to be rejected by peers when they possess a strong understanding of emotions.”
Once you feel your child is ready, play dates can be a great way for them to get one-on-one time with children they like. Some parents will be delighted to entrust their child to your care and just turn up to collect them at teatime, whereas others will insist on coming along at this age, so stock up the tea and biscuit supplies. This can be a good opportunity to get to know another parent and also means you get to swerve the darker side of play dates (exasperatingly fussy eaters, stroppy screen obsessives and, the worst, kids who want to hang with you in the kitchen instead of play with your child) until later in the school year. Play date discipline is a minefield, but if it needs to be done it needs to be done – just be aware how it might come across in a retelling and try not to swear.
As for you, depending on how much time you have on your hands, volunteering to help at the school, joining the PTA or simply being the one who organises the first mum’s night out can be great ways to make friends yourself. Despite what you might read on Mumsnet, most mothers have very positive experiences when it comes to making friends at the school gates.
Older Primary Age (7-11)
Now’s the time to put everything you’ve learnt about friends and friendship to the test. Frenemies, mean girls, power struggles, Pokemon card wars – it’s all happening in Key Stage Two. As children get older and start the journey towards the independence of secondary school, they tend to be more decisive about who they want to play with, and what they will and won’t join in with in the park or school playground. Friendships are often very important to children at this age, so helping them to develop the skills they need to negotiate the highs and lows is a priority, but trying to force them to participate in something they don’t want to will generally end in tears.
Focus on making sure their understanding on the basics of social interaction is solid. Are they polite? Are they kind? Do they seek to include rather than exclude others? Are they able to solve their own problems most of the time? It can be heartbreaking to see your eight-year-old crying over being left out at playtime, but learning to resolve issues independently is a life skill. Parents also need to understand when friendship problems cross the line into bullying and be ready to help.
As for you, this is probably the last chance you have to get to know other parents through your child’s friendships. As children reach secondary school, many of their relationships will be conducted in a totally separate arena to yours. This doesn’t mean you can wash your hands of them completely, though.
“Studies show that children tend to have better outcomes if their parents monitor their activities,” says Dewar. “There is also evidence that children benefit when we act as their emotional coaches, discussing feelings with them, and helping them figure out constructive ways to solve their problems. But getting in the middle of things can be another matter. When parents are habitually intrusive, their children tend to experience worse outcomes.”
They say it takes a village to raise a child and good friends (theirs and yours) can be one of the most joyful parts of that village – like-minded people to depend on, learn from, have fun with and share in the magic of growing up.