Looking for Closer Friends and Joining a Friendship Group
- My daughter feels left out of a group of four girlfriends at her school. How can I help?
- My son has no close friends. What can I do about this?
Background: Friendship Groups
As elementary school children mature, they relate to their close friends more deeply. To first graders, a close friend is anyone they play with, especially anyone they have play dates with. They become selective in their close friends by second grade and begin to have special interests by fourth grade. Fifth and sixth graders are most intimate with their same-sex friends before their interest in the opposite sex begins to distract them. You can see this in Table 9.1.
The Value of Friendship Groups
Three times as many boys as girls enroll in my Children's Friendship Training classes. It seems that far fewer girls than boys have friendship problems. Part of the reason may be that many more girls than boys belong to friendship groups. A friendship group includes one's best friend as well as several of one's closer but not best friends. Girls' friendship groups (when they belong to one) are closer and smaller than boys' friendship groups.1 Boys have one or two best friends, which changes from time to time, but usually stays within four or five constant closer friends.
Jeremy, Greg, and Steven, who have known each other since kindergarten, are an example of an ideal friendship group of boys. They live within two blocks of each other and have had many individual play dates with each other. Each occasionally plays with other boys who aren't part of their group.
In fourth grade, their parents feel confident that they can safely cross small streets. The boys then get together as a group after the parents confer with each other on the phone. Jeremy and Steven ride their bikes to Greg's house and play there for a while. They tell Greg's mom they are going to ride their bikes for forty-five minutes, and she makes sure they return. After they return, they head over to Steven's house, where his mom has planned to give them lunch.
Here is an account of an ideal girls' friendship group. Four mothers make frequent play dates with each other for their second-grade daughters. The mothers also find that they like each other. When the girls are in third grade, the mothers go out for coffee after they drop their girls off for the horseback riding lessons that all their girls take together. Many girls fantasize about having friendship groups like these four girls had because it formed quickly, lasted a long time, and involved the parents. Many girls want special friends, or "sisters."
Here is a more typical account. For the past three years, six-year-old Julie has attended a ballet class. She has met several girls there, but only Ginger remains her long-time friend. Julie meets Jolene in third grade when they both began to ride the same bus to school. She met Emily at Girl Scout camp and also in the city orchestra. In sixth grade, Julie, Ginger, Jolene, and Emily attend the same middle school. They all eat lunch together every day at school and have slumber parties once every couple of months. Their common interests are intellectual (they are all in honors classes) and watching movies at their slumber parties.
Girls' typical friendship groups form slowly by adding individual girls and then suddenly may coalesce when circumstances change, usually at the beginning of a school year. Children pick each other to be friends on an individual basis through common interests. The parents know each other but are not necessarily friends.
Another pattern that is common among girls (about 39 percent of girls) is they don't belong to a circle of girls who are mutual friends.2 Instead, they have best friends in many of the activities they join—a best friend in their dance class, a best friend in the neighborhood, and a best friend in school, for example. I believe that either of these patterns is beneficial for girls' long-term adjustment. The trouble is that some girls are unhappy unless they belong to a friendship group.
The one type of friendship group to avoid is the one that is labeled by most as the "popular kids" (but not well-liked kids). Members of this group value being particularly exclusive.3 This type of group has a dominant leader who allows others in or excludes others. Children entering into this type of group are forced to give up their previous friends, usually through negative comments from group members. Parents can tell that their child is entering such a group when they hear that group members are pressuring their child to give up their old friends.
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