Child Behavior: Childhood friendships, is it quality or quantity?

A Hudson Valley child behavior expert defines how friendships are created

Attention Hudson Valley parents, does your child need help making friends? Our own Dr. Schwartz has the answers you need.

It’s a cold world out there but friends can make it a warmer place. They endure time and distance; provide comfort, intimacy, and support. They help clarify goals and expectations by selfless giving and sharing. 

The development and maintenance of friendships in childhood unfolds somewhat differently than seen with mature relationships, but it forms a pattern for creating friendships in later life. Many theorists view the development of friendships similarly to other areas of human development, as going through predictable, progressive and hierarchical stages.

If you like Dr. Paul Schwartz' advice, learn key tips on how to say "No" to your child. He calls this the Monty Hall Syndrome of parenting. 

I’m sure dinnertime conversations with your children revolve not only around what they are learning in school, but involve children whose names you haven’t heard before. Some of the friendships your child is making are transitory while others will last for years.

As a handy playmate

Below the age of seven friendships are based on physical (same age or gender) or geographical considerations (next door neighbor) and is rather self-centered. A friend is a playmate who lives nearby and has “neat” toys, and likes the same games. There is little or no understanding of the other person’s perspective or feelings, or personality traits other than the avoidance of a playmate because “they are mean.”

For assistance and mutual trust

During the next stage of development (ages 7-9) the idea of reciprocity and awareness of the other child’s feelings begins. Friendships are viewed by the social actions and interactions and the subjective evaluations of these actions by the children.

“Perspective taking,” or the recognition of how another child might feel given our actions, begins during this stage. It should be noted that perspective-taking is more dominant in girls than boys at this stage and throughout subsequent stages of development. During the preadolescent (tween) stage of development (ages 9-12) children have friendships based not only upon a mutually of interest and geographical proximity, but also on a pattern of “give and take,” and friends are seen as people who help and support each other.

Camaraderie, group and team membership take on more importance as children begin dissolving their own self-importance to the needs of the group. Children realize they can evaluate their friend’s behavior and their behavior can conversely be evaluated: trust, a benchmark of mature friendships, appears for the first time. In the latter part of this stage, rifts between friends are not as easily “patched up” as in early childhood.

Although apologies and explanations are usually accepted and all is forgiven, as the phrase goes, all is not forgotten. It’s at this time children are ostracized for behavior that violates social norms repeatedly.  This becomes especially problematic: this stage is the template for adolescence, where peer-acceptance becomes paramount and social ostracism creates a multitude of problems.

Quality and consequences of friendship

There is little doubt having friends is extremely important to children.  Friendships contribute significantly to the development of social skills, such as being sensitive to another’s viewpoints, learning the rules of conversation, and age- appropriate behaviors. They also help determine self-identity and self- worth.  More than half the children referred for emotional behavioral problems have no friends or find difficulty interacting with peers.

Friends also have a powerful influence on a child’s positive and negative school performance and may also help to encourage or discourage deviant behaviors. Compared to children who lack friends, children with “good” friends have higher self-esteem, are less likely to be lonely, act more prosocially, can cope with life stresses and transitions, and are also less victimized by peers.

Interestingly, children with friends of both sexes, as a group, are better adjusted and have greater social skills than children who have only same sex friendships. Though girls are much more intimate in their friendships than boys. 

Friendships and alone time

As parents, it’s important to keep in mind that although friendships follow a somewhat predictable developmental sequence—not all children progress at the same rate. Delays in this area are not necessarily a cause for concern. Look for signs: is your child frequently expressing feelings of sadness and loneliness?  

Additionally, parents who over- identify with or interpret their children’s desire for solitary play as loneliness, and attempt to “push” friends on them, may be making an incorrect assumption.  As important as friendships are, like their adult counterparts, children may greatly enjoy and choose solitary activities; some children need or desire more alone time than do others.

Friendships ground us throughout life, and lifelong friendships help us revisit and examine the tapestry of our lives. How many of us still have friends from when we were very young children. There is something so special about them! They provide us a feeling of security and an understanding of ourselves as we continue through our own developmental process.

Paul Schwartz, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology and education at Mount Saint Mary College. He is available for speaking engagements to parent groups. He has years of experience as a camper and a camp director.