Do Kids Need Friends? (page 2)
Human beings are social beings. Responsiveness is built in; we come into the world programmed to respond and relate to others. Even infants turn their heads in response to the sound of a human voice. Early in life children begin to interact with children outside the family - in child care settings, play groups, and preschool programs. The friendships children have with each other are different than those they have with parents and relatives. Family relationships provide an ease, a closeness, a deep sense of intimacy. But they don't substitute for other relationships. Starting young and continuing through adulthood, friendships are among the most important activities of life.
What are friends for?
Friendships are important in helping children develop emotionally and socially. They provide a training ground for trying out different ways of relating to others. Through interacting with friends, children learn the give and take of social behavior in general. They learn how to set up rules, how to weigh alternatives and make decisions when faced with dilemmas. They experience fear, anger, aggression and rejection. They learn how to win, how to lose, what's appropriate, what's not. They learn about social standing and power - who's in, who's out, how to lead and how to follow, what's fair and what's not. They learn that different people and different situations call for different behaviors and they come to understand the viewpoints of other people. Friends provide companionship and stimulation for each other, and they find out who they are by comparing themselves to other children - who's bigger, faster, who can add better, who can catch better. They learn that they're both similar to and different from others. Through friendships and belonging to a group children improve their sense of self-esteem. The solace and support of friends help children cope with troubling times and through transition times - moving up to a new school, entering adolescence, dealing with family stresses, facing disappointments.
Friendships are not just a luxury; they are a necessity for healthy psychological development. Research shows that children with friends have a greater sense of well-being, better self-esteem and fewer social problems as adults than individuals without friends. On the other hand, children with friendship problems are more likely than other children to feel lonely, to be victimized by peers, to have problems adjusting to school, and to engage in deviant behaviors. 1
Most kids have friends, and children who have friends at a young age are more likely to have friendships at later ages. About 75% of preschoolers are involved in friendships, and by adolescence 80 to 90% report having mutual friends, usually including one or two best friends and several good friends. Children and adolescents of all ages think of friendship in terms of reciprocity - what they do for each other - but what actually happens between friends changes with age. 2 The toddler may help a friend rebuild his block tower; the school age child may help a friend with homework; the adolescent may offer advice to a friend on issues they can't discuss with parents. Although the issue of reciprocity remains constant, concepts of friendship and the behaviors associated with friendship change as children develop.
Friendship through the ages
In the toddler years children begin to establish contact with peers, develop the rudiments of play behavior and show preferences for certain playmates. Preschoolers identify specific children as friends and interact differently with friends than non-friends. With toddlers friendship is not reflected in language, but in the time they spend together engaged in a common activity.
During the elementary school years children generally choose friends who are similar to themselves and who share their interests. At this age children become increasingly group-oriented; the most well-liked children are those who can manage social relations within a group and think of activities that are fun.
Groups reflect most of the problems that exist in all social relationships - inclusion/exclusion; conformity, independence, fear of rejection. They also reflect sex differences. Groups become more single-gender; girls usually have more intimate and supportive relationships with their friends than boys do. Their play groups reflect this difference; boys tend to associate with peers in large groups centered on sports while girls are more likely to be involved in small groups and spend more time in personal conversation. Girls' friendship groups are usually smaller and more exclusive than boys' during childhood, and then in adolescence the situation reverses. 1
Groups are a naturally occurring phenomenon. Belonging to a group, whether a sports team, fraternity or political party, provides a sense of belonging and is not just a means for exclusion. Between the ages of 10 to 12 cliques form; as children mature and rely less on their parents for guidance, they turn to their peers. Cliques can be based on appearance, athletic ability, academic achievement, social or economic status, talent, ability to attract the opposite sex, or seeming sophistication - the jocks, the nerds, the brains, the cool kids, etc. Some kids care about belonging to a certain group, suffer from feelings of rejection if they are not included and can become victims of teasing and bullying. When cliques turn aggressive they may become gangs. Cliques peak in middle school as peer relationships and acceptance augment family relationships and then decrease in high school.
The amount of time spent with friends is greatest during middle childhood and adolescence. Teenagers spend almost a third of their waking time in the company of friends. Most adolescents move away from relying on family and parents and develop close ties with friends. While young children's friendships are based largely on companionship, older children report higher levels of self-disclosure or sharing personal thoughts and feelings in their friendships. The characteristics of preadolescent friendship, such as companionship, tangible aid, validation, caring and trust are still salient; but in addition adolescent friendships become significantly more intimate. Adolescents recognize and value the complexity of human relationships; they view friendship as a strong and stable bond built up and lasting over time.
Friends and school achievement
It seems logical that having friends at school would enhance a child's academic progress. Schools can provide a network of rewarding experiences and represent natural communities of reinforcement. Friends can help each other with class assignments and homework; they can fill in what's missed during absences, and most importantly, friends make school more fun. Research confirms these impressions. Longitudinal studies show that children entering first grade have better school attitudes if they already have friends and are successful in keeping the old friends as well as in making new ones. 3 Similarly teens who have friends experience fewer psychological problems than friendless teens when school changes or transitions occur. 4
When friendships are not helpful - the downside of friendship
The quality of friendship is important. The well known "peer pressure" effect which starts in early adolescence, although positive for many, can also have negative consequences. Children who align themselves with friends who engage in antisocial behavior are at risk for also engaging in this type of behavior. Antisocial friends are not good role models. Especially during adolescence, teenagers who have a history of difficult behavior and poor peer relationships can engage in delinquent behavior. In contrast, adolescents who have a history of positive peer relationships and are socially mature are more resilient and better able to deal with life changes and stress. 5 Learning to deal with peer pressure, competition and difference is a necessary part of development. Helping children deal with pressure from friends is more important than protecting them from it.
Reprinted with the permission of the NYU Child Study Center. © NYU Child Study Center.