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Development of Peer Relationships and Interpersonal Understandings

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

School is very much a social place. In fact, for many students, interacting with and gaining the acceptance of peers are more important than classroom learning and achievement (B. B. Brown, 1993; Dowson & McInerney, 2001; W. Doyle, 1986a). For example, in the “Motivation” video clip in the Ormrod Teacher Prep Course, when 15-year-old Greg is asked what he most likes about school, he quickly responds, “Lunch . . . all the social aspects . . . friends and cliques.”

However, social success and academic success are not an either–or situation. Quite the contrary, students who enjoy good relationships with their peers at school are more, rather than less, likely to achieve at high levels (Gest, Domitrovich, & Welsh, 2005; Guay et al., 1999; Patrick, Anderman, & Ryan, 2002; Pellegrini & Bohn, 2005).

Roles of Peers in Children’s Development

Peer relationships, especially friendships, serve several important roles in children’s and adolescents’ personal and social development. For one thing, they provide an arena for learning and practicing a variety of social skills, including negotiation, persuasion, cooperation, compromise, emotional control, and conflict resolution (Asher & Parker, 1989; Erwin, 1993; Gauvain, 2001; Maxmell, Jarrett, & Dickerson, 1998; Sutton-Smith, 1979).

In addition, peers often provide much-needed social and emotional support. In the preschool years children see their age-mates primarily as sources of recreation, but as they grow older, they find that friends can provide comfort and safety—a group with which to eat lunch, a safe haven from playground bullies, and so on (Berndt, 2002; Pellegrini & Bartini, 2000; Youniss & Volpe, 1978). Once children reach puberty, they rely increasingly on peers rather than adults for emotional support, especially in times of trouble or confusion (Levitt, Guacci-Franco, & Levitt, 1993; Rubin, Bukowski, & Parker, 1998; Wentzel, Barry, & Caldwell, 2004). Such support may be especially important for young people from unaffectionate or excessively punitive home environments (Berdan & Keane, 2005).

Many adolescents, especially girls, reveal their innermost thoughts and feelings to their friends (Levitt et al., 1993; Patrick et al., 2002; A. J. Rose, 2002). Friends often understand a teenager’s perspective—the preoccupation with physical appearance, the concerns about the opposite sex, and so on—when no one else seems to understand. By sharing their thoughts and feelings with one another, teens may discover that they aren’t as unique as they once thought and may gradually abandon the personal fable mentioned earlier (Elkind, 1981).

Peers also play a third important role in personal and social development: They serve as socialization agents that help to mold children’s behaviors and beliefs. Young people socialize one another in a variety of ways (Erwin, 1993; Ginsberg, Gottman, & Parker, 1986; J. R. Harris, 1998; A. M. Ryan, 2000). They define options for leisure time, perhaps getting together in a study group or smoking cigarettes on the corner. They offer new ideas and perspectives, perhaps demonstrating how to do an “Ollie” on a skateboard or presenting arguments for becoming a vegetarian. They serve as role models and provide standards for acceptable behavior, showing what is possible, what is admirable, what is cool. They reinforce one another for acting in ways deemed appropriate for their age, gender, or ethnic group. And they sanction one another for stepping beyond acceptable bounds, perhaps through ridicule, gossip, or ostracism. Such peer pressure has its greatest effects during the junior high school years; teenagers who have weak emotional bonds to their families seem to be especially susceptible to it (Berndt, Laychak, & Park, 1990; Erwin, 1993; R. M. Ryan & Lynch, 1989; Urdan & Maehr, 1995).

The Real Scoop on Peer Pressure A common misconception is that peer pressure is invariably a bad thing. In fact, it’s a mixed bag. Many peers encourage such desirable qualities as truthfulness, fairness, cooperation, and abstinence from drugs and alcohol (Berndt & Keefe, 1996; Damon, 1988; McCallum & Bracken, 1993). Others, however, encourage aggression, criminal activity, and other antisocial behaviors (Chen, Chang, He, & Liu, 2005; Espelage, Holt, & Henkel, 2003; D. C. Gottfredson, 2001). Some peers encourage academic achievement, whereas others convey the message that academic achievement is undesirable, perhaps by making fun of “brainy” students or by encouraging friends to cut class or skip school (Altermatt & Pomerantz, 2003; B. B. Brown, 1993; E. N. Walker, 2006). Students are most likely to have academic and social difficulties if they get conflicting messages from family, school, and peers about what behaviors are acceptable and appropriate.

Although peer pressure is certainly a factor affecting development, its overall influence on children’s behaviors has probably been overrated (Berndt & Keefe, 1996). Most children acquire a strong set of values and behavioral standards from their families, and they do not necessarily abandon these values and standards in the company of peers (B. B. Brown, 1990; W. A. Collins et al., 2000; Galambos, Barker, & Almeida, 2003). Furthermore, they tend to choose friends who are similar to themselves in motives, styles of behavior, academic achievement, and leisure-time activities (W. A. Collins et al., 2000; Kindermann, McCollam, & Gibson, 1996; A. M. Ryan, 2001).

Curiously, much of the pressure to conform to others’ standards and expectations comes from within rather than from outside. In particular, most children and adolescents engage in self-socialization,self-socialization, putting pressure on themselves to adopt the behaviors they think others will find acceptable (B. B. Brown, 1990; Durkin, 1995; Juvonen, 2006). This process is undoubtedly a factor in the imaginary audience phenomenon described earlier. Concerned about how others may evaluate them and wanting desperately to fit in, young adolescents can be very conforming, rigidly imitating peers’ choices in dress, music, slang, and behavior (Hacker & Bol, 2004; Hartup, 1983; Owens, 1996).

Young people certainly don’t adopt all of the behaviors their peers exhibit. They choose some role models over others, weigh the pros and cons of going along with the crowd, evaluate the advice they get, and gradually construct their own views about which behaviors are and are not appropriate for them. In some cases they lead double lives, which enable them to achieve the goals they hold dear—perhaps achieving academic success or maintaining good relationships at home—while also conveying a sense of coolness to age-mates(Juvonen, 2006; Mac Iver, Reuman, & Main, 1995). For instance, although they attend class and do their homework faithfully, these students may feign disinterest in scholarly activities, disrupt class with jokes or goofy behaviors, and express surprise at receiving high grades (B. B. Brown, 1993; Covington, 1992). In addition, they may act tough when they’re in public, saving their softer sides for more private circumstances, as one sixth grader’s reflection reveals:

You’d still have to have your bad attitude. You have to act—it’s just like a movie. You have to act. And then at home you’re a regular kind of guy, you don’t act mean or nothing. But when you’re around your friends you have to be sharp and stuff like that, like push everybody around. (Juvonen & Cadigan, 2002, p. 282)

As teachers, we must keep in mind that most students desperately want to look good in the eyes of their peers. We can help them maintain a good public image in a variety of ways. For instance, we can help them acquire the skills they need—public speaking techniques, personal hygiene, and so on—to present themselves in a favorable light. We can assign small-group projects in which every student has a unique talent to contribute. And when valued classmates ridicule academic achievement, we can allow students to demonstrate their accomplishments to us privately—through written assignments or one-on-one conversations—instead of in front of their classmates.

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