Friendship in children:

How parenting and family life affect peer relationships

© 2009 - 2015 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

An evolutionary perspective on reciprocity, “mind-reading,” and friendship in children

Among hunter-gatherers, friendship, and the reciprocity that characterizes friendship, is the key to survival. Successful hunters share meat. Friends look after each other’s kids. People are keen to give away valuable treasures to cement their friendships and alliances (e.g., Weissner 1982). And the kids? Hunter-gatherers encourage their children to participate in acts of reciprocity from an early age.

Today, many anthropologists suspect that the need to make friends and allies was a driving force in human evolution. Our ancestors beat the odds against disease, famine, and predators by teaming up. Along the way, natural selection favored people who were good at “reading minds” and forging bonds.

Kids who were better at charming the neighbors got more support--more babysitters, more food providers, more people who were willing to share (Hrdy 2008). Kids who couldn’t make friends would have been socially isolated—and in serious trouble. As anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy argues, babies come equipped with social brains because our ancestors needed friends and allies to survive (Hrdy 2009).

So friendship has always been important. But what--besides sharing--does a successful friendship entail?

Studies of Western populations suggest several points about friendship in children.

• Like adults, kids reject people who they perceive to be aggressive, disruptive, irritable, domineering, dishonest, or selfish (Carlson et al 1984).

• Kids who report a greater willingness to help others are more likely to have high-quality friendships (Coie et al 1990; Rose and Asher 2004).

• Popularity in preschool is linked with verbal ability, kindness, and low aggression (Ladd et al 1988; Coie et al 1990; Earnhardt and Hinshaw 1994; Slaughter et al 2002; Landon et al 2010).

• "Hanging out" with prosocial peers -- kids who are cooperative and kind -- may may help preschoolers build crucial emotional skills. In one study, 4-year-olds who affiliated with more with prosocial peers showed more emotional positivity and less emotional negativity toward classmates later on -- even after controlling for initial personality differences and the "culture" of the classroom (Fabes et al 2012).

• Direct interventions can make kids friendlier and more popular. When researchers randomly assigned some primary school students to perform three acts of kindness each week, those kids became more popular than did children in a control group (Layous et al 2012).

• Mind-reading matters! Young children are more likely to be accepted by their peers -- and more likely to develop friendships -- if they understand the thoughts and feelings of other people (Slaughter et al 2002; Caputi et al 2012; Fink et al 2014). And as kids get older, the links between popularity and interpersonal skills—like empathy, moral reasoning, and perspective-taking—become even stronger (Dekovic and Gerris 1994). 

• Kids are more likely to become friends if they have fun together, feel a sense of trust, and make each other feel good about themselves (Asher and Williams 1987).

• Friendships are more common between kids who are similar. Similar kids are more likely to agree about what’s fun. And relationships are less likely to become exploitative (with one partner benefiting more than the other) when both parties can offer each other similar benefits--like intellectual stimulation or social status (MacDonald 1996).

Given these points, it seems likely that parents can help kids make and keep friends by fostering

• Empathy, perspective-taking, and empathic concern

• Conversational skills

• Emotional self-control

• A willingness to compromise and offer help

• A willingness to share, take turns, and follow rules

How is it done? I suspect the most important influence begins at home—with the relationships kids have with their parents and siblings.

Friendships in children may be influenced by family experiences

A variety of studies suggest that kids who have secure attachments with their parents have better-quality friendships. For instance:

• Research tracking kids from infancy has found that kids who’d experienced secure attachments as babies were more likely to have close friendships at 10 years of age (Frietag et al 1996).

• Another study has reported that friendships between securely-attached preschoolers were more harmonious, less controlling, more responsive, and happier than were friendships involving an insecurely-attached partner (Park and Waters 1989).

• A study of older kids (aged 9-12), found that kids who felt they could count on their parents for help were kids who reported having better quality friendships with their peers (Leiberman et al 1999).

• A University of Minnesota study tracked 78 people from infancy through their mid-20s. Researchers found that individuals who had been securely-attached at 12 months were rated by their elementary school teachers as more socially competent. These more socially-competent kids were also more likely to have secure friendships at 16 years (Simpson et al 2007).

These are merely correlations, of course. Possibly, the link between parenting and peer relationships reflects a third variable, like genetics. In one study examining peer problems among three-year-olds, behavioral geneticists attributed 44% of differences between children to heritability (Benish-Weisman et al 2010).

But there are good theoretical grounds for thinking that secure attachments help kids make friends. A securely-attached child has learned that social relationships are rewarding. He’s learned to trust. And he’s learned a lot about the way to get along with another person.

Consider, too, the effects of family talk.

Studies show that kids who participate in family conversations about emotions and mental states are more socially competent.

Kids who are encouraged to talk about motives, beliefs, and feelings develop stronger “mind-reading” skills.

And kids with siblings tend to perform better on certain theory-of-mind tasks--tasks that require kids to interpret other people’s emotions and recognize when other people’s beliefs differ from our own (Youngblade and Dunn 1995).

But none of this happens automatically. It appears that kids develop better social skills when adults and older siblings make an effort to teach them. For more information, see these research-based tips for fostering friendship in children.

More information about friendship in children

For other evidence-based discussions of friendship, see these articles:

• Should parents be friends with their kids? Some thoughts on the right ways and the wrong ways to befriend children.

• How to help kids make friends: Evidence-based tips


References: Friendship in children

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