Show me your friends and I will tell you who you are

We do not believe in ourselves until someone reveals that deep inside us something is valuable, worth listening to, worthy of our trust, sacred to our touch. Once we believe in ourselves we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight or any experience that reveals the human spirit.”

E. E. Cummings (American poet 1894 – 1962)

In the early years of our young children’s lives, we observe children gravitating towards others, not because their mum has told them to, or because their teacher thinks they would be a good match, but rather because there is something deeply interesting about one another – a discrete and powerful attraction that we have come to understand as an intuitive learning opportunity, an innate drive towards growth and development.

These connections reveal something important about each child, who they are, and who they are hoping to become. We notice how children receive one another, perceive one another, and move towards or away from one another. 

We track and monitor these connections and, in time, the important learning is revealed – children are curious about the way the other is able to play, to lead through their imagination, to devise and create scenarios and experiences; or is able to assert themselves, to say ‘no’, to ask for help; to take new risks and use their energy to explore, to test, to create; or provide comfort and demonstrate a deep desire to care for another. And no matter what we, the adults (parent or educators) believe, feel, or wish for, that magnetic connection prevails.

The new friendships give us a window into what children are developing, what drives their curiosity, and how they position themselves to grow and develop a sense of self, an ability to be with others, and to find their way in the world. The children watch, try, practise and practise some more with their peers, mostly through play. It is our work, as educators, to ensure that these connections are healthy and useful; and, of course, to guide children away from destructive or dangerous interactions. At the heart of these connections, we promote the notions of trust and good choices. The more chance children have to experience these wholesome interactions, the greater the likelihood will be to develop stronger and deeper neuropathways that will remain intact as children grow and mature.

There are so many important life skills that start to take shape in the early years that prepare children not only for school, but for future relationships, workplace capabilities, and civic responsibilities. These skills become the predictors of not only smooth transitions, but of a meaningful school experience overall, and of the capacity to develop lifelong friendships that can sustain time and distance.

Our daily work, that we take very seriously, revolves around guiding children to learn to:

  • Effectively regulate and express a full range of emotions
  • Respect personal space, keep our bodies in our bubbles
  • Read facial expressions, understand body language and non-verbal cues
  • Show empathy, kindness, and thoughtfulness around others
  • Share and turn-take, giving others a go
  • Say ‘sorry’, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’
  • Ask others for help and offer to help others
  • Listen to others, follow directions, hear different points of view
  • Watch and observe others
  • Include others, widening our circle, moving up to welcome others in
  • Waiting, being patient
  • Acknowledge, respect, encourage and value others

The children turn to us, their adults, to help make sense of their experiences.

Whether we are their parents, grandparents, or their educators, children take notice of us, our responses and our way of being – the way we talk and play and find ways to problem-solve. Children rely on us to provide them safe and authentic experiences – allowing them to feel secure and understood and thereby be provided with the best chance to be able to learn well. We know that some children are naturally social and making friends comes easily, without having to try hard.  Whilst other children find things harder, take longer to process, and benefit from things being made simpler, and their experiences being unpacked and scaffolded. And then there are those children who are happiest with just one good friend at a time.

That adage ‘we can’t choose our family, but we can choose our friends’, becomes a valuable reflection of who we are. It is often through our friendships that we come to know how well we are loved. We may pause and consider our own valued friendships, where they started and how they have grown, and hopefully we feel comforted that we have chosen well and that our friendships make our lives richer and memorable.

One of the greatest gifts we can give our children is to trust them to make the friendships that will help them to grow well, and to know how to move away from friendships that are stifling or unhealthy.

Most of all, we want our children to not feel alone, but rather a part of something bigger than themselves; developing connections which will give them the confidence to go out into the world feeling good about themselves, and a deep knowledge that they are truly loved. I am sure you will agree that our world needs our children to feel and know this. And if, at any time, we feel helpless and overwhelmed, it is important to remember that we have the capacity to make a difference. For the more of these worthy connections we help to foster and facilitate, the better the chance we have for a future where peace, “curiosity, wonder, [and] spontaneous delight” prevails. 


About the author

Cathy Milwidsky is the Head of Early Learning and Development at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW

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