Peer Relations in Middle Childhood

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

A positive climate for social and moral growth is one that fosters peer interaction (Nucci, 2001). In middle childhood, 30% of a child’s social interactions involve peers, compared to 10% in early childhood (Rubin, Bukowski, & Parker, 1998). Children’s behavior in the peer group has proven to be a stable indicator of their social competence (Hartup, 1996; Zeller, Vannatta, Schaffer, & Noll, 2003). School-agers not only construct understandings of others but must also interact competently with their peers and sustain friendships over time. In addition, children’s concerns about acceptance in the peer group often rise during middle childhood. Many peer relations researchers, not surprisingly, have focused on the study of friendships among school-age children (for a review, see Rubin, Bukowski, & Parker, 1998).

Friendships are important for social development. Friendship processes are linked to social developmental outcomes, also called social provisions. In a classic text called The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry, Harry Stack Sullivan (1953/1981) argued that friends fulfill social needs, called communal needs, such as companionship, acceptance, and intimacy (Buhrmester, 1996). In many ways, this formulation is similar to Maslow’s need for belonging. Furthermore, communal needs can be distinguished from other human needs:

  • Communal Needs.Interpersonal needs for affection, nurturance, enjoyment, support, companionship, intimacy, and sexual fulfillment
  • Survival Needs.Physical needs for safety, food, shelter, and health
  • Agentic Needs.Individual needs for competency, achievement, status, power, approval, autonomy, identity and self-esteem (see Buhrmester, 1996)

The social concerns of school-age children often focus on the communal needs of acceptance by peers and avoidance of rejection.
Alesha’s need for continued acceptance by her best friends from elementary school—Jennifer and Kelly—may prove stronger than her need for Mandy’s companionship. When confronted with Mandy’s offer to get high, Alesha seems genuinely fearful of rejection by her peer group. Will they still like her if she started hanging out with Mandy? Why should they continue to be friends if she’s becoming one of the “druggies”?


Middle childhood brings about marked changes in the understanding of friendship. In early childhood, friendship is usually associated with sharing a current activity, whereas in middle childhood children begin to recognize that friendships can last over time (Parker & Seal, 1996). Sullivan (1953/1981) referred to friends in the preadolescent years between ages 8 and 10 as chums. School-age children usually indicate an increasing appreciation of each others’ feelings and intentions, brought about by advances in their social perspective-taking ability (Rubin, Bukowski, & Parker, 1998).

Contemporary researchers have typically investigated school-age children’s friendship concepts by asking them what they expect from a best friend. Friendship stages in middle childhood have been found to parallel the stages of social understanding. Children who are social-informational perspective takers and unilateral negotiators will likely think of friendships as one-way, that is, they may think about what a friend could do for them, or vice versa, but not what they reciprocally could do for each other (Selman, 1980). For example, in the hypothetical friendship story told previously, it is likely that a child at this level would suggest that Kathy take the “better” offer. Some researchers have termed this period a “reward-cost” stage, in which children around 7 or 8 believe that friends are rewarding to be with compared to nonfriends (Bigelow, 1977; see also Robin, Bukowski, & Parker, 1998). Many school-age children have best friends and are satisfied with those friendships (Parker & Asher, 1993).

By ages 10 or 11, however, most school-age children demonstrate “normative” friendships, in which they recognize that friends are supposed to be loyal to each other (Bigelow, 1977). Recall that these children are likely to be self-reflective perspective takers and cooperative or compromising negotiators. They conceptualize friendships as reciprocal, although it is still highly unlikely that these relationships will survive difficult arguments or negative events (Selman, 1980). For this reason, school-agers have often been called “fairweather” friends because their relationships may not weather stormy periods (Rubin, Bukowski, & Parker, 1998). In addition, when boys in one study terminated a friendship because of conflict, the typical length of time for working it through and renewing the friendship was one day, but for girls it took about two weeks. One explanation for this sex difference is that triads (like Alesha, Jennifer, and Kelly) are more common in the friendships of school-age girls than boys, causing one member of the group to feel left out (Azmitia, Kamprath, & Linnet, 1998).

By the end of middle childhood, most children are capable of mutual role-taking and collaborative negotiation, as we have discussed. Friends at this stage expect each other to provide companionship, help, protection, and support (Azmitia, Kamprath, & Linnet, 1998). For them, friendships are becoming intimate, characterized by an enduring sense of trust in each other. For example, between third and sixth grades, the expectation that friends would keep secrets rose from 25% to 72% among girls, although boys had no such similar expectation until the end of sixth grade (Azmitia, Kamprath, & Linnet, 1998). These maturing notions of friendship translate into social interaction with peers during middle childhood. In addition, peer acceptance influences school-age friendship dynamics. Overall, the ability to form close, intimate friendships becomes increasingly important during early adolescence (Buhrmester, 1990).

Comparing Friendship and Peer Relations

In middle childhood, maturing peer relations are dependent on children's developing understanding of friendship.

Stage Peer Relations Friendship
Stage 0 Physcial connections Momentary physical interaction
Stage 1 Unilateral relations One-way assistance
Stage 2 Bilateral partnerships Fairweather cooperation
Stage 3 Homogenous community Intimate and mutual sharing
Stage 4 Pluralistic organization Autonomous interdependence

Source: Based on "Four Domains, Five Stages: A Summary of Portrait of Interpersonal Understanding, " by R.S. Selman, In The Growth of Interpersonal Understanding Developmental and Clinical Implications ((pp136 - 147), 1980 New York: Academic.

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