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
• 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
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
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
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
Benish-Weisman M, Steinberg T, Knafo A. 2010. Genetic and
environmental links between children's temperament and their problems
with peers. Isr J Psychiatry Relat Sci. 47(2):144-51.
Blandon AY, Calkins SD, Grimm KJ, Keane SP, and O'Brien M., 2010.
Testing a developmental cascade model of emotional and social
competence and early peer acceptance. Dev Psychopathol. 22(4):737-48.
Caputi M, Lecce S, Pagnin A, and Banerjee R. 2012. Longitudinal
effects of theory of mind on later peer relations: the role of prosocial
behavior. Dev Psychol. 48(1):257-70.
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.
Erhardt D and Hinshaw SP. Initial sociometric impressions of
attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and comparison boys:
Predictions from social behaviors and from nonbehavioral variables.
Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. 62(4):833–842.
Fabes RA, Hanish LD, Martin CL, Moss A, Reesing A. 2012. The
effects of young children's affiliations with prosocial peers on
subsequent emotionality in peer interactions. Br J Dev Psychol. 30(Pt
Fink E, Begeer S, Peterson CC, Slaughter V, and de Rosnay M. 2014. Friendlessness and theory of mind: A prospective longitudinal study. British Journal of Developmental Psychology 33 1: 1-17.
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.
Ladd GW, Price JM, and Hart CH. 1988. Predicting preschoolers’
peer status from their playground behaviors. Child Development
Layous K, Nelson SK, Oberle E, Schonert-Reichl KA, Lyubomirsky S.
2012. Kindness counts: prompting prosocial behavior in preadolescents
boosts peer acceptance and well-being. PLoS One. 7(12):e51380.
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
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
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:
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
Content last modified 6/15