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Why Can't We Be Friends? The Importance of Friendship in Childhood Development

TOPICS | Parenting | Education Posted Monday, June 3, 2013 (499 views)


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.

“The big mystery in the field became, ‘OK, so we’re pretty successful at making kids better accepted. But what about friendship?’” Asher said. “Is there anything special about friendship as a relationship that calls on skills that are different from what you need to just be better liked?”

It turned out there are. One example is knowing how to initiate interactions—a skill that might help a child become well liked, but is essential to making friends. “It may be as simple as saying, ‘Hey, do you want to get together on the playground?’” said Asher. He added: “Kids don’t go out for coffee, but they go for bike rides, they go to each other’s houses, they talk on the phone.”

Even before taking initiative, of course, a child is faced with another decision: with whom does he or she want to go on a bike ride? Choosing prospective friends is not simple, and according to research by Asher and Jeffrey Parker, kids go through a detailed, if subconscious, mental checklist when doing so. At the top of the list is a relatively simple question: Is this person fun to spend time with? But from there it gets trickier, as kids try to figure out whether they like how the candidate they’re evaluating makes them feel about themselves, how trustworthy and reliable he or she is, and how much common ground they share.

Perhaps the most complex question Parker says kids ask themselves is this: How does the potential friend go about trying to convince others to do things? That may sound strange, but exerting influence and being influenced by others is a huge part of being young, whether it’s about whether to employ a “no backsies” policy in tag or about which bands are cool. According to Parker, some kids are skilled at persuading their friends to pursue an idea without being pushy or annoying, while others are ham-fisted at it, and tend to resort to coercion and aggression—such as one 14-year-old boy Parker observed in a recent laboratory study, who reacted to being separated from a friend by desperately dragging the other boy’s chair back across the room.

Once two kids decide they like each other, what determines whether their friendship is happy and long-lasting? That’s the subject of recent research by Julie MacEvoy, an assistant professor at Boston College who studies children’s friendships. One of MacEvoy’s most striking findings came about when she compared boys and girls, and noticed a curious paradox. Though girls seemed to put more effort into their friendships—they helped their friends more, were better at resolving conflict, and engaged in more intimate conversations—the boys were, on the whole, no less satisfied with their friendships. MacEvoy’s conclusion was that boys and girls have different expectations of friendship—and that when it comes to being happy with the way a friendship is going, those expectations are key.

Whether you’re a boy or a girl, there is always the risk of a friend disappointing those expectations: letting you down, making friends with someone else, or just not being there for you. How kids handle such disappointments, MacEvoy says, ends up dictating a lot about how well they hold onto friends over the long term. “If you’re going to participate in friendship, you’re setting yourself up to be disappointed,” MacEvoy said. Not holding a grudge is crucial to maintaining friendships, and being incapable of it causes some kids to flit around from one friend to another, successfully making friends but quickly losing them.

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Content courtesy of Leon Neyfakh

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