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.
Given these points, it seems likely that parents can help kids make and keep friends by fostering
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:
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 my 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.
Asher SR and Williams GA. 1987. Helping children without friends in
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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.
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Hrdy, SB. 2009. Mothers and others: The evolutionary origins of mutual understanding. Harvard University Press.
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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.
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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.Content of "Friendship in children" last modified 6/15