How kids make friends — and why it matters
September 3, 2012
New research from psychologists unlocks the mysterious, complicated, strangely adult way that children connect.
This week, the children of Boston will arrive at school for the first time since summer vacation, bracing themselves for a monumental decision: where to sit during lunch. As they stand in the cafeteria, clutching their trays and trying not to look too concerned, they will wonder who their friends will be this year, and what they’ll need to do to find them in the crowd.
Each September, these moments unfold across America, as the nation’s young people undertake the exciting, stressful process of picking allies and identifying kindred spirits. It’s a process we remember vividly into adulthood, in part because the companions we choose as children—and those who choose us—often end up having a permanent impact on our lives. But looking back, most of us are faced with an enigma when we ask why exactly we ended up with the friends we did.
What do kids look for in a friend? What draws some children together, while driving others apart? Over the past several decades—and especially recently, as concerns about bullying have roiled the country—these questions have attracted increasing attention from developmental psychologists. By sitting in on classrooms and summer camps, recording playground conversations with microphones, and even monitoring children’s text messages, researchers are beginning to arrive at intriguing conclusions about what it takes for children to become—and perhaps more importantly, remain—friends.
One of the most significant findings to come out of this growing field is that making friends isn’t the same as being popular: The ability to initiate and maintain close relationships is different from simply being liked and accepted by the group. To make friends, it turns out, children need to be able to carry out sophisticated social maneuvers, screening potential pals for certain positive qualities and making careful assessments about how much common ground they share. And in order to be a good friend—the kind that inspires loyalty and dedication—even a very young child must be not only fun to spend time with, but capable of being emotionally mature in ways that can be difficult even for grown-ups.
“Even if, as a parent, you might look at your children’s friendships and think, you know, ‘Oh, they just play together, how hard could that be?’ it is in fact hard work. They’re working very hard,” said Jeffrey Parker, an associate professor at the University of Alabama who specializes in childhood friendship. “There are lots of [kids] who are amusing, but it’s not the same as being able to work really well with someone.”
In the long run, researchers hope to understand “friendship skills” well enough that kids could learn them and parents could help develop them deliberately. For now, driven by findings that point to the surprising demands of childhood friendship, they’ve begun to assemble the first clear portrait of the mysterious forces churning beneath the surface when that lunch tray hits the table.
When you’re little, most people enter your orbit through circumstances outside your control. Your parents, your baby-sitter, your siblings—all are chosen for you. Friendships, in contrast, are almost entirely voluntary: Even if you’re encouraged to play with certain kids, no one can really force you to be buddies with them. Maybe this is why the friends we make when we’re very young later occupy such a special place in our memory: They represent some of our first meaningful choices as autonomous beings.
The importance of friendship in child development was first explored more than half a century ago by the American psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan, who in an influential 1953 book argued for the importance of “chumships” in activating children’s sense of empathy. “If you will look very closely at one of your children when he finally finds a chum—somewhere between 8-and-a-half and ten,” Sullivan wrote, “you will discover…that your child [is beginning] to develop a real sensitivity to what matters to another person.”
This now sounds charmingly innocent, considering that in recent years, most of the ink and research devoted to childhood relationships have focused on what happens when they go horribly wrong, and why certain kids bully others into misery. Researchers have conducted fascinating if disconcerting studies about the cruelty of which kids are capable. In one study on rejection, for instance, Duke University psychologist Steven Asher used microphones to record the chatter of 35 children over the course of a school year, and cataloged “32 different types of rejection,” many of them acutely hurtful and disturbingly creative.
A pivotal breakthrough in understanding friendship came out of rejection research conducted in 1977, when Asher and Sherri Oden, a colleague at the time, were looking into the mechanics of social acceptance in schools. For the study, the researchers asked third- and fourth-graders to rate how much they liked each of their classmates, and then, separately, asked them to list their three best friends. Cross-referencing the results, they noticed there were kids who were well-liked but did not have any close friends, as well as kids who were not well-liked that did. Later, Asher tested a number of so-called interventions aimed at teaching kids social skills to improve their status. In reviewing the results, he noticed something strange. Even though many of the interventions succeeded at helping rejected children become more accepted, they had no effect whatsoever on their ability to make close friends…