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little friends

Children, Life, , — December 2015

Moomin and Koala Bear are best friends

Helen has made strong attachments to some of her peers, far stronger than anything I remember from my own early life (though I have very few memories from before school). Reminding her that she'll get to see her friends once she gets to nursery, or that we're going on a playdate, is almost always a big motivation for getting dressed and leaving the house. And having a friend refuse to hold hands with her can be enough to make her burst into tears.

Her friends divide into two groups: the ones she has made herself at nursery and the ones that have effectively been chosen for her.

At nursery her first friend, at least that we know of and have a name for, was Aubrey. When she first left the baby room at one year and four months and moved to the toddler room, one of the other girls took her by the hand and they toddled off together; we think that was Aubrey. But though she still lists Aubrey among her friends and they're part of the same group who hang out together, she's doesn't talk about her that much now. Her most regular nursery playmates now are Aadi and Jacob ("Yapog"), both born in the same month as her. She and Aadi in particular seem inseparable: she talks about him all the time, is usually with him when I pick her up, and apparently spends whole days together with him.

Aubrey and Helen and Aadi and Jacob found each other themselves — I'm pretty sure the nursery staff don't do match-making — in the same way that older children do at school. The nursery setting also involves group interactions. So when Helen arrives at nursery the other children will sometimes go to tell Aadi that she's arrived. Helen has told me that Lily May is now Aadi's friend and she is Jacob's friend (I think this is because those pairings match the carer groups they're in). And I've had Helen come out with "you're not my best friend any more" to me — presumably copied from children at nursery who have copied older siblings, though apparently children this young can already engage in relational aggression.

Helen's other friends come from local parents, from our National Childbirth Trust group and two additional families we've connected with. So they are the product of geography, the grouping decisions of NCT coordinator Vergil, common interests (in cycling activism and blogging), contingency in such mundane matters as which days of the week people work, and adult friendships. (I had assumed these were overriding factors, but one of my fellow parents tells me she can't organise playdates with another parent she really likes, because their children just don't get on.)

Helen is also really keen on the girl next door. Rosie is 2.5 years older, which made for fairly asymmetrical interactions at first but has become much less of an obstacle: they can play together for hours now. (Though with it getting dark so early now, and being cold and wet, meetings in the back gardens — where we've taken out a section of fence for easy communication — aren't so common.)

Sometimes there are larger groups involved, but Helen's interactions here usually involve just two children, and almost always multiple adults. This has been fascinating because, unlike with the nursery relationships, I've been able to watch them as they've progressed from playing next to each other with almost no interaction to having conversations and wandering off by themselves. As with their language skills, almost every week seems to bring something new in their creative play.

While in many ways they are clearly tracking the same developmental trajectory, Helen and her friends are already quite different both in how they interact with each other and with adults. Frieda is always keen to involve me in her and Helen's play, sometimes directly and sometimes as an audience. Parker and Helen, in contrast, just go off and do things together, completely wrapping themselves up in their own imaginative world. With the friends who are most familiar with Helen (and with me), such as Rachel and Imogen, it's now clearly less work looking after two of them than looking after Helen alone (though so far I've only done this for relatively short periods, in familiar locations).

In some ways it's sad to think that Helen will never remember these happy days running around with her little friends. One response might be that learning to build and maintain friendships is an important skill, but that kind of goal-oriented focus seems wrong-headed to me. The present always matters — it can't and shouldn't be subordinated to the future, even for toddlers with a lot of that ahead of them — and the pleasure Helen and her friends find in each other's company is real and valuable in itself, however ephemeral it may be turn out to be.

Whether any of Helen's friendships persist will obviously depend on the adults involved, on our careers and other choices. If we stay in the UK, I'd like to think some of them will last. One drawback of being in the UK is the distance to our Australian relatives: in this context I particularly miss Olivia and Emma, two cousins almost the same age who Helen would surely be seeing regularly if we were in Sydney.


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