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Peer Relations in Middle Childhood (page 3)

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

Peer networks

Researchers studying the formation of peer networks define a clique as a small group of close friends (for an ethnographic study of peer networks, see Adler & Adler, 1998). Generally, girls’ friendship networks are smaller (i.e., more intensive) than boys’ networks (i.e., more extensive). Longitudinal research, however, has shown that boys’ friendship networks are more likely to become interconnected over time compared to girls’ (Ladd, 1999). Interestingly, the size and density of adolescents’ networks has been related to parents’ friendship networks—especially mothers’—perhaps due to the influence of social learning (Parke & Buriel, 1998).

Unlike interaction-based cliques that are composed of friendship networks, crowds are reputation-based groups of children who are not necessarily friends but who share similar values, attitudes, and behaviors, such as “jocks” or “brains” (Prinstein & La Greca, 2002; see also Brown, Eicher, & Petrie, 1986). Peer crowds serve an important relational function when children enter a new school and interact with increasing numbers of peers. The crowd system may act as a social guide to help school-age children maintain peer relationships, meet possible friends, and—eventually—choose romantic partners. In adolescence, students who are more central in their peer networks feel more positively about school (Crosnoe, 2000). On the other hand, adolescents who affiliate with deviant crowds (e.g., “burnouts”) report higher levels of illegal behavior, alcohol and marijuana use, aggression, and risky sexual behavior (Prinstein & La Greca, 2002).

Will Alesha be able to build connections between her “clique” of friends from elementary school and a new “crowd” in middle school?

Peer and friendship networks are likely to form because of three factors, based on the principles of social learning theory discussed earlier (Hartup, 1996):

  1. Sociodemographics.  Children are likely to come into proximity because of age, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, etc.
  2. Social Selection.  Children construct relationships with others who are similar to themselves or to whom they are attracted.
  3. Mutual Socialization.  Children become increasingly similar to their friends as they interact.

Typically, the peer groups of school-age children are segregated by sex, although socially unskilled children who are rejected by their peers may be more likely to seek opposite-sex friends. Girls usually place a priority on interpersonal connections (i.e., communal needs), whereas boys place a higher priority on status concerns (i.e., agentic needs) (see Maccoby, 1990, 1998). For example, in a study of friendship quality, girls reported more frequent intimate and supportive interactions with female friends than boys did with male friends (Buhrmester, 1996). In other studies, boys were more likely than girls to express anger towards well-liked peers, perhaps due to concerns about competition. Girls were more likely to judge a friend’s misdeeds in terms of how these behaviors would affect their relationship (see Ladd, 1999).

Such sex differences are likely due to differential gender socialization experiences in family, school, and community contexts (discussed later in this chapter). For example, in a study of school-age children’s social networks on a school playground, ethnographic observers found that sex-typed play (i.e., all-boy or all-girl) interacted with stereotypical behaviors related to other social categories, such as age, race, and social class. Girls’ and boys’ hairstyles and clothing, for instance, amplified differences between male and female peer groups (Thorne, 1993, 1997a). In addition, the greater social prestige of early pubertal maturation for boys versus girls reproduced the dynamics of male dominance on the playground (Thorne, 1997b).

Another typical cross-sex interaction, heterosexual dating (or “going together”), is often an extension of peer networks in middle childhood rather than the intimate dating relationship characteristic of adolescents. For example, middle-school dating usually consists of groups going out together, often a combination of male and female cliques (Pellegrini, 2001).

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