Yesterday my son’s best friend announced that he was moving to a new preschool. He is only 2 years old, but I know my son felt sad. I don’t know how long his sadness will last. I’m not saying he is depressed. I’m just aware of his sadness.
I was surprised by the reaction of others as I related my son’s situation. Almost every parent had a similar story to share. Curiously, each story concluded with the trite adage, “Oh, he’ll forget about Tony soon.” I know the memory trace will eventually fade, and he will develop new friends. But that was not the question I was asking or what caused my concern. I just do not know what his experience of loss and sadness, or even of friendship, is like.
So I decided to do some research. In the grand tradition of developmental psychology, I decided to ask his older sister about her experience as she lost friends early on. I asked the 5-year-old expert about Matthew and Jonathan, two boys she was quite attached to when she was 2. She remembered their names and smiled. She even related a few experiences. But she was not sad. And she had moved on to develop many friendships since. I was beginning to think that all the opinions were right, that I was making too much out of a normal part of life. Leave it to the child psychologist father to overinterpret.
I looked it up in books. Of course I found that these two boys were not capable of true friendship. They had not yet developed the “social-cognitive skills” necessary for a truly “reciprocal relationship.” According to some research, they were over a year away from even reaching the first developmental level of friendship. Certainly with their immature language skills they would not be able to explain their understanding of friendship to us. But does that mean that they feel the effects of friendship less?
A prominent child development textbook explained that adolescents and adults understand that friendships are not one-sided. Friendships involve mutuality and reciprocity. Friends share, care for and comfort each other. Young children are not socially or cognitively mature enough in their development to be friends. But these boys do take care of each other. They search for the other one when entering the school every morning. They comfort each other when one falls or gets hurt. They get excited for each other when one poops in the potty.
I asked one of my graduate students, “How old do children have to be to form true friendships?” She told me that recently she was the maid of honor in her best friend’s wedding. They met in preschool.
Yesterday Tony brought a plastic golf club to school. He was the envy of all the 2-year-old boys who long for any cylindrical object with which to joust. Today, he brought two clubs, one for my son and one for himself. He presented it to my son upon walking in and they immediately bonded anew. As only 2-year-old boys can get away with, they hugged and jumped in place. I again realized that I was not overinterpreting. They boys, just 32 months old, had succeeded in developing an incredible bond. They truly enjoyed each other.
They fight too. All friends do at times. They argue and shout if the other boy’s parent inadvertently pays too much attention to the friend. They kibitz. Standing at the day care window as I pull in at the end of the day, there they are, every day, standing together, chatting back and forth. “What do they talk about?” my wife and I always ask. I don’t know; I guess it is private.
Maybe I am just feeling sadness for my son. After all, we parents try to protect our children from experiencing pain. Maybe I am just placing myself in his position and ascribing the mature emotional reaction to his situation. Maybe he will not even notice that anything is different the day after Tony leaves. I don’t think so. I think he will miss the golf club, the hugs, the friendship.
As adults in this crazy world, we have little time for friends. I haven’t seen my best from college in two years. I have never met his second daughter. He is still my best friend because I have not had time to find a replacement. I am beginning to think that my 2-year-old has stronger friendships than his father.
Edmund Kearney is a psychologist who lives in Illinois.