Child Behavior: The importance of friendship

The benefits of bonding at every age

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 through 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.

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.


Below the age of 7, friendships are based on physical (same age or gender) or geographical considerations (next-door neighbor) and are 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.”

Give and take

During the next stage of development (ages 7-9) the idea of reciprocity and awareness of the other child’s feelings begins. “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 on mutual 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. 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.

It’s at this time children are ostracized for behavior that violates social norms repeatedly. This stage is the template for adolescence, where peer-acceptance becomes paramount and social ostracism creates a multitude of problems.

Quality and influence

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. 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, act more socially, 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.

Alone time

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, PhD., is a professor of psychology and education at Mount Saint Mary College.

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