Looking for Closer Friends and Joining a Friendship Group (page 4)
- 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.
Solving the Problem: Help Your Child Have a Few Close Friends
While it is not necessary for boys or girls to belong to a friendship group, it is desirable to have two to four close friends of the same sex. Girls and boys can make rewarding playmates for each other, and nothing I am about to say is intended to discourage you from helping your child maintain these opposite-sex friendships.
However, it is important for children to have same-sex closer friends since they will have playmates to play with in public places like the school yard.
Step 1: Ask Your Child About Favored Playmates
Find out from your child who she is spending time with at school:
Mom: What did you do today at recess?
Danielle: I played hopscotch.
Mom: With whom?
Danielle: Trisha and Joy.
Mom: Do you usually play with them?
Mom: Do you want to have either of them over to the house?
If your child does not have favored playmates at school, ask about after-school or neighborhood activities. If there are no playmates in any of these activities, follow the steps in Chapters Four through Six to help your child meet new friends.
Some children complain that they are being excluded from a particular friendship group they want to join. I feel it is a mistake for a parent to encourage a child to try to join a friendship group. Children who are complaining about not being included in a specific friendship group are
- Trying for a friendship group for the wrong reasons—popularity or status—rather than looking for children with common interests who would make the best playmates.
- Trying to be accepted too quickly into a friendship group—trying to get all the children in the group to include them at once—rather than seeking to establish separate friendships with each child. Establishing separate friendships is the best way to join a larger friendship group.4
Mom finds out her daughter Kate is being left out of a friendship group at school:
Kate: I don't have anyone at school to hang out with.
Mom: What about Evelyn? You play with her after church.
Kate: Evelyn is too busy with Abby and Sharon to talk to me at school.
If Mom decides with Kate that common interests are not strong enough with Abby or Sharon, Kate needs to look elsewhere for friends she can hang out with at school. Mom helps her do this:
Mom: Is there anyone else you like at school?
Kate: I like Monica, but she's not friends with Evelyn, Abby, or Sharon.
Mom: It's up to Evelyn, Abby, and Sharon if they want to hang out with you. Meanwhile, don't depend on them. Do you like Monica enough to ask her over?
If the answer is yes, then it's time for a play date. If something didn't gel with Evelyn, Abby, or Sharon, then maybe something better will happen with Monica. Otherwise Kate keeps looking for additional friends. Remember that it is not essential that your child belong to any friendship group, but it is important for her to have close friends.
Step 2: Linger for a Few Minutes Before or After School and Activities
Arrive a few minutes before the activity is over and watch from the sidelines to see whom your child is hanging around (read Chapter Six for more help):
Mom: [After watching her son, Alex, talking to another boy] Hi, Alex. Who was that boy you were talking to?
Alex: That was Jeffrey.
Mom: Does Jeffrey play with you at school?
Alex: Yes, we played handball at recess today.
Mom: Would you like to invite him over to our house?
The next day Alex's mother can strike up a conversation with Jeffrey's mom before they pick up their sons (see Chapter Six for more help with this).
Step 3: Arrange Play Dates with One Child at a Time
You have a common interest with some parents: both of your children want to play together. You have found out who these children are in the last step; now meet their parents to arrange play dates. Although in-person arrangements are always better for first and second graders, telephoning can also be effective, especially for older children who will make the call (see the next chapter). Talk to whichever parent is picking up your child's desired playmate at school.
Here is an example of how making friends with one child at a time works, even if the girls start out by being hesitant. Margie, age twelve, is the occasional target of remarks made by girls in one friendship group. They call her a nerd because Margie's interest in reading and horses differs from theirs. She gets to know individual girls in this friendship group better through different activities: Mary and she are on the track team together. Joanne and Rika are in her drama class. In each case, meeting the girls apart from school in another activity leads to an enjoyable play date. Word gets around among the friendship group that Margie "isn't so bad."
Margie may not become part of the friendship group, but this will not matter since she has started to form close friendships and neutralized the girls' negative image of her.
The Next Step
You've helped your child get to know other children better because she likes and shares common interests with them. Many children will make the mistake of wanting to be a part of a group even though they don't like the members. If your child selects friends for the wrong reasons, read Chapters Fifteen and Sixteen. If your child is a good judge of potential friends, read Chapters Ten and Twelve to help you plan play dates, and read Chapter Fifteen to help you encourage beneficial friendship choices.
1 Eder, D., & Hallinan, M. (1978). Sex differences in children's friendships. American Sociological Review, 43, 237-250.
2 Paxton, S. J., Schutz, H. K., Wertheim, E. H., & Muir, S. L. (1999). Friendship clique and peer influences on body image concerns, dietary restraint, extreme weight-loss behaviors, and binge eating in adolescent girls. Journal of Abnormal Behavior, 108, 255-266.
3 Adler, P. A., & Adler, P. (1995). The dynamics of inclusion and exclusion in preadolescent cliques. Social Psychology Quarterly, 58, 145-162.
4 Paxton et al. (1999).
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