Friendship in children:
How parenting and family life affect peer relationships
© 2009 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).
• Studies of young children have found that popularity in preschool is linked with verbal ability, kindness, and low aggression (Coie et al 1990; Slaughter et al 2002).
• For 5- and 6-year olds, the predictor of peer acceptance may be a child’s ability to understand the mental states of others (Slaughter et al 2002). As kids get older, the links between popularity and interpersonal skills—like empathy, moral reasoning, and perspective-taking—become 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
• Conversational skills
• Emotional self-control
• Empathy, perspective-taking, and empathic concern
• 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.
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
Asher SR and Williams GA. 1987. Helping children without friends in home and school contexts. Children's social development: Information for teachers and parents. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 283 625).
Carlson CL, Lahey BB, Neeper R. 1984. Peer assessment of the social behavior of accepted, rejected, and neglected children. J Abnorm Child Psychol. 12(2):187-98.
Coie JD, Dodge KA, and Kupersmidt JB. 1990. Peer group behavior and social status. In RA Asher and JD Coie (eds): Peer rejection in childhood. Cambridge University Press.
Dekovic M and Gerris JRM. 1994. Developmental analysis of social cognitive and behavioral differences between popular and rejected children. Journal of applied developmental psychology. 15(3): 367-386
Freitag MK, Belsky J, Grossmann K, Grossmann JE, Scheurer-Englisch H. Continuity in child-parent relationships from infancy to middle childhood and relations with friendship competence. Child Development. 1996;67:1437–1454.
Hrdy, SB. 2009. Mothers and others: The evolutionary origins of mutual understanding. Harvard University Press.
Lieberman M, Doyle A, Markiewicz D. Simons KJ, Paternite CE, and Shore C. 1999. Quality of parent/adolescent attachment and aggression in young adolescents. Journal of Early Adolescence. 21:182–203.Child Development 70:202–213.
MacDonald K. 1996. What do children want? An evolutionary perspective on children’s motivation in the peer group. International Journal of Behavioral Development 19(1): 53-73.
Parke RD, Simpkins SD, McDowell DJ, Kim M, et al. 2002. Relative contributions of family and peers to children’s social development. In: PK Smith and CH Hart (eds): Blackwell handbook of child social development. Wiley-Blackwell.
Rose AJ and Asher SR. 2004. Children’s strategies and goals in response to help-giving and help-seeking tasks within a friendship. Child Dev 75(3): 749-763.
Slaughter V, Dennis MJ, and Pritchard M. 2002. Theory of mind and peer acceptance in preschool children. Brit Jour of Dev Psych 20: 545-564.
Weissner P. 1982. Risk, reciprocity and social influences on !Kung San economics. In: E Leacock and R Lee (eds): Politics and history in band societies. Cambridge University Press.
Youngblade LM and Dunn J. 1995. Individual differences in young children’s pretend play with mother and sibling: Links to relationships and understanding of other people’s feelings and beliefs. Child Devel 54: 858-867.
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