Preschool seems to be the time when kids start making real friends. The experts say toddlers are too little to make real friends and a part of me believes that, but another part thinks that's not entirely true. However, I've seen both of my kids make true friends between the ages of 3 and 5.
I think it's important to teach kids exactly what friendship is on a level they understand. My son had to leave his best friend Diego when we moved from Florida to Missouri. This was hard on him, but we taught him that the memories he has of Diego would last his whole life. (The incident of when they both peed on our dog is the most talked about memory.) To do this we play the Memory Friend Game. This is a simple game that can be played during dinner. You simply name a friend you've had in life, and talk about all the memories you can remember, both good and bad.
Role playing is a great way to show kids what it's like to be a good friend. Preschool is the time when kids are still learning to share and not be bossy. By playing a game where you're the bossy friend, or the friend who doesn't like to share, you and your child can talk about why it's not fun to play with someone who doesn't act nicely while playing. You can then reverse the roles for more discussion and role playing.
I also like to make a "Why I Like...." list. For this my daughter picks a friend and then I write down all the attributes she likes about that friend. Then we take two different friends and see how they're alike and different. Then we talk about how you can have all different sorts of friends because everyone brings something different to your life. Her attributes are pretty basic right now. She likes her friends because they have pretty hair or because they have a pink sparkly bracelet, but it's a start to learning how to pick out good attributes in a person.
As my kids get older, we talk about respect and peer pressure. My 9-year old is currently learning about what it means to respect your friends and expect the same respect in return. He's also learning what it means to stand up for yourself and not be intimidated by someone just because they act a fool. I'm hoping that by teaching about friendship from a young age, my children will grow up with a good group of friends. Because when it comes down to it, there will come a point where their friends' opinions are more important than mom's and dad's opinion. Hopefully they'll make friends with the types of kids we'd choose for them to be friends with.
I think the thing that defines whether a person really understands friendship is not just knowing how to make a new friend, but how to maintain that relationship. Even though my closest friends and I have moved to different states, if I saw them tomorrow it would be like I'd just seen them yesterday. I'm hoping to teach my kids how to make and maintain lifelong friendships that stand the trials and tribulations that time brings. And if you're eventually sending your kids off to school, there's no better time to start teaching them about friendship than at home.