Making friends and keeping them are important life skills. Just like learning to walk, talk, self-feed, and potty-train, there are steps that babies, toddlers, and preschoolers will master as they learn the skill of making and keeping friends. It takes a long time to learn these skills. I mean think about, we’re still developing them well into adulthood.

So, what do these skills look like as your baby/toddler/preschooler develops into a social being? Here are some thoughts to consider:

Baby friendships

When it comes to your baby, you are your baby’s first friend. He relates to you as he mirrors your facial expressions. He reaches with his hands and feet to seek your attention. Responding to those cues lets him know that he’s doing all the rights things as a friend-seeker.

Toddler friendships

Toddlers learn to be a friend through imitation, too. Your toddler will begin to imitate her friends through what’s called parallel play. Because sharing is not yet perfected (or even considered!), she’ll play alongside—or parallel to—others. Language is a powerful coaching technique as you explain in simple and clear words how a friend is feeling. Saying, “Timothy is sad because you grabbed his truck,” or, “Sarah wants to sit beside you to play,” helps make your toddler become more empathetic and aware of the feelings of their friends. Keep in mind the one-friend-at-a-time rule for your one-year-old.

Preschooler friendships

Preschoolers move into that magical time when friendships and attachments are blossoming, and your child will begin to see life from the perspective of others. Parallel play grows into cooperative play, and then collaborative play. Your role as a friendship coach at this age is to listen, observe, and intervene when necessary.Be sure to provide a variety of play experiences and supply words for your preschooler to use when problem-solving with a friend.

As you “friendship coach” your child in these early phases, one of the best ways to teach is through stories. Tap into the many children’s books that portray healthy friendships. Reading age-appropriate books with your baby, toddler, or preschooler like The Frog and Toad series by Arnold Lobel and The Elephant and Piggie series by Mo Willems, is a great way to enjoy learning more about friendship as you cuddle and share a quiet time together—or with friends.