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December 19, 2023
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Friendship in children can be quirky, awkward… even painful at times. But the benefits of friendship are obvious and undeniable. High quality friendships can contribute to physical and mental well-being, and buffer kids from the effects of toxic stress (Lu et al 2021; Gunnar 2017). Depending on the circumstances, friends can also raise a child’s self-esteem, support academic achievement, counteract loneliness, and protect against the development of depression.

Small wonder, then, that some parents take active measures to foster friendship in children (which you can read about here). And, no, this focus on the importance of friendship isn’t unique to people living in Western, industrialized, affluent countries.

Take, for example, modern-day hunter-gatherers, the peoples whose economic life-ways most closely resemble those of our ancestors. For a hunter-gatherer, friendship — and the mutual aid that characterizes friendship — is key to survival. Successful hunters share meat. Friends look after each other’s kids. And when food becomes scarce – when group members can’t find food within their normal home range – friends from neighboring bands will grant access to their land (Weissner 1982; Weissner 2002).

Friendly relationships are therefore essential, and children grow up learning to cultivate these relationships. Among the Ju/’hoãnsi (!Kung) people of the Kalahari, adults coach youngsters in the art of gift-giving – encouraging children to give away prized items of jewelry (such as beads) to fellow group members. By adulthood, a traditionally-raised Ju/’hoãnsi individual may have more than 20 social partners, including friends and allies who live more than 150 kilometers away (Weissner 1982).

How long has this been going on? Isotope analysis of ancient beads suggests that this friendship network (or something like it) has existed in southern Africa for more than 30,000 years (Stewart et al 2020; Miller and Wang 2022). And how do people value friendship in other parts of the world?

As I’ll note in an upcoming article, folks in different cultures may take somewhat different views of friendship, but there is a strong cross-cultural “through line” when it comes to the central importance of the help and support that friends provide each other. When Daniel Hruschka surveyed 60 different traditional societies – from Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas – he found that “mutual aid” and “gift-giving” were widespread characteristics of friendship (Hruschka 2010).

Moreover, there’s even research documenting the benefits of friendship among nonhuman animals — like monkeys, horses, and dolphins. Mothers tend to live longer – and have more infants that survive to adulthood – when they are involved in strong, lasting friendships (Seyfarth and Cheney 2012; Brent et al 2014).  

So we have many lines of evidence, and they all lead us to the same conclusion. Friendships and friendship-making skills can be critical for success, and this has probably been the case for a long time.

Indeed, anthropologists suspect that the need to make friends and allies was a driving force in human evolution. Our ancestors beat the odds against illness, famine, and predators by teaming up. And this created a selective pressure favoring individuals with characteristics that made them good at teaming up. Can you “read minds”? Show sympathy? Offer help and good cheer? Can you cooperate? Defuse conflicts? Inspire loyalty?

Kids who were better at charming the neighbors got more support — more babysitters, more food providers, more people who were willing to share (Hrdy 2008). Children who failed to make friends would have been socially disconnected — and in serious trouble. As anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy argues, our babies come equipped with “social brains” because our ancestors needed friends and allies to survive (Hrdy 2009).

What do childhood friendships look like, and how do they develop over time?

It might seem obvious that kids develop more complex and psychologically mature expectations about friendship as they get older. But is there a single, age-based timeline that children follow? Probably not.

It isn’t that there aren’t any patterns. There are. Psychologists have offered several timelines, like this one proposed by Robert Selman in 1981. It’s cited in textbooks and online articles, and it has influenced the way some folks think about friendship in children.

Selman’s Five Stages of Friendship in Children

  • Level Zero (3 to 7 years) — momentary physical interaction (you are friends with whomever is playing with you at the moment)
  • Level 1 (4-9 years) – one way assistance (friends are important because they understand your likes and dislikes, and deliver what you want…but you don’t necessarily think about returning the favor)
  • Level 2 (6-12 years) – fair weather reciprocity (you engage cooperation as long as it furthers your self-interest)
  • Level 3 (9-15 years) – intimate and mutual sharing (you disclose feelings, personal problems, and secrets…and expect loyalty)
  • Level 4 (12+ years) – autonomous interdependence (intimate sharing may become deeper or more meaningful; but, at the same time, you accept and respect each other’s needs to pursue independent relationships and experiences)

How well does this timeline explain the development of friendships in children?

It’s definitely incomplete. For one thing, it doesn’t even begin until around the age of three. What happens before this age? Are babies and toddlers clueless about friendships?

And what is the evidence supporting the given age ranges? Why should we assume, for example, that kids don’t engage in reciprocity until the age of 6? Or that kids will fail to share personal information with each other until they are 9?

As psychologists like Narges Afshordi and Zoe Liberman have noted, these proposed stages were based on self-reports – on asking children to verbalize what they understand about friendships. And given that very young children are still learning language, that may lead us to underestimate what’s going on in their minds!

However, in recent years, researchers have moved away from relying on children’s verbal skills to study friendship. Instead, they’ve use alternative methods, and the results provide us with a different picture. It’s likely that children are quite a bit more sophisticated than the classic “stages” of friendship would lead us to believe (Afshordi and Liberman 2021).

Evidence that young children may think of friendships as more than “momentary physical interaction” or “one way assistance”

When children are very young, it isn’t always easy to figure out what they are thinking. But, as I note elsewhere, clever experiments can reveal what babies expect and prefer. We know, for example, that babies watch social interactions between third parties. They notice if Person A is treating Person B with kindness, and they prefer to approach individuals who have a track record for behaving in a friendly way. (You can read more about it in my article, “Moral sense: Babies prefer underdogs and do-gooders”.)

So babies show signs of being selective about their social partners. And they may also possess an understanding of why some people “get along” better than others. If babies observe that two individuals share similar tastes, they tend to expect that these people will be friends.

For example, in experiments conducted in the United States, 6-month-old babies watched two adults sitting together and eating. If both adults displayed similar food preferences (sharing the same likes and dislikes), the babies tended to expect that these individuals would greet each other cheerfully when encountering each other on subsequent occasions. By contrast, if the adults showed opposing food preferences, the infants tended to expect that these individuals would act standoffish and unfriendly toward each other on subsequent meet-ups (Liberman et al 2021).

What about acts of reciprocity? Sharing? Helping? 

As noted above, the Ju/’hoãnsi actively coach children to be generous, and, as anthropologist Polly Weissner has documented, this training begins during infancy (Weissner 1982). What do these babies  understand about giving, sharing, and helping? It’s hard to know, but I think we can rule out the idea that they are clueless and self-centered. Based on research conducted in Western countries, the evidence doesn’t fit the pattern of young children as entirely selfish or one-sided in their social dealings.

For instance, in studies conducted in Germany, 14-month-old babies have engaged in spontaneous acts of kindness – helping a complete stranger obtain an out-of-reach item. And, by the age of three, these kids may understand the notion of reciprocating good deeds. In one experiment, young children were introduced to stranger who was helpful and generous to them. Then kids were given the chance to return the favor. How did they respond? It depended on their age. Two-year-olds did not respond to the generous social partner by increasing their willingness to share. But 3-year-olds did (Warneken and Tomasello 2013).

Meanwhile, in the United States, researchers report that 3- and 4-year-olds tend to assume folks are friends if they see them engaging in acts of sharing or helping (Afshordi 2019; Liberman and Shaw 2017). Around this same age, American preschoolers often start to use the word “friend” (Hartup and Stevens 1999), and many preschoolers identify “friends” as people who love or care about each other (Furman and Bierman 1983).

Furthermore – and contrary to the proposed timeline above – experiments indicate that 3-to-5-year-olds associate friendship with acts of loyalty (Liberman and Shaw 2019).

How do all these expectations and tendencies affect young children’s peer relationships? In the real world?

Researchers are still piecing this together. But adult observers report that preschoolers often form companionable, reciprocal relationships with each other — playing with toys or engaging in games of make believe. These frequently-associating individuals express concern for each other, and share opinions. Compared to non-friends, they also experience more frequent conflicts, but when they clash, they are more likely to resolve the matter equitably (Hartup et al 1988; Seabanc 2003; Howes 2009; Coelho et al 2017).

So it appears that babies have expectations about friendly, interpersonal relationships, and they themselves are capable of kindness and helpfulness. By the age of three, some children respond reciprocally to acts of generosity, and preschoolers may speak of friendship in terms of loyalty and love. Moreover, by the age of 4, many kids may be capable of working out at least some conflicts with their friends. Overall, the updated research suggests that young children’s friendships are more socially-attuned than Selman’s original account seemed to imply.

What about older kids?

As we move into the school years, notions of friendship become even more complex. In experiments on children living in the United States, children as young as 6 years take the view that friends are people who share and keep each other’s secrets (Liberman and Shaw 2018). In addition, school-aged kids to tend to expect that friends will understand, and be considerate of, each other’s feelings.

Interestingly, a study of U.S. 6th graders suggests that some adolescents place a special emphasis on the protective nature of friendship. When asked to consider a series of friendship characteristics, kids ranked two as the most important of all: A friend is “someone who would never hurt me” and who “sticks up for me when others are against me” (Kitts and Leal 2021).

The study authors note that these kids came from economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, and were exposed to violence. Would adolescents living in safer, more privileged environments place the same emphasis on “having each other’s backs”? Maybe not. To my mind, this underscores the variability of children’s notions about friendship – something that becomes even more apparent if we take a look at cross-cultural studies.

Does culture influence the development of friendship in children?

Yes. Across cultures, kids learn different “rules” about what is acceptable among friends.

An interesting example concerns the expectation that friends will engage in intimate disclosures about their personal feelings. In collectivist societies, such as traditional China, people develop very close relationships, yet they disfavor this kind of direct, verbal, emotional sharing. This kind of talk threatens social harmony, so friends are supposed to be good at inferring each other’s emotional needs, without anyone making explicit disclosures (Gummerman and Keller 2008).

There is also evidence that culture affects the timing of children’s developmental understanding of friendship.

For example, in research conducted in the 1990s, Michaela Gummerman and Monika Keller interviewed kids (aged 7-15 years) four countries — Iceland, China, Russia, and former East Germany. They found lots of cross-cultural similarities in what kids thought about friendship. But there were interesting differences, too. Among the 7-year-olds, those from Russia showed the most advanced development along Selman’s developmental timeline. And by age 9, both Russian and Chinese kids were ahead of their peers in Iceland and East Germany (Gummerman and Keller 2021).

Are friends always a positive influence?

Alas, no. As our everyday experience confirms, friends can affect each other in negative ways, and I’m not just talking about peer influence on things like alcohol use or juvenile delinquency. Friends can also contribute to each other’s poor mental health by being overly intrusive and demanding (Etkin and Bowker 2023), or by reinforcing each other’s bad psychological habits of brooding or ruminating – dwelling excessively on upsetting experiences, without taking active steps to solve problems (Guarneri-White et al 2015).

What kinds of friendships are linked with better outcomes?

Kids are more likely to flourish when they have high-quality friendships, and when their peers engage in prosocial, pro-academic, pro-health behaviors (Shin et al 2022; Chung et al 2017). For instance, children who report a greater willingness to help others are more likely to have high-quality friendships (Coie et al 1990; Rose and Asher 2004; Dryberg et al 2022). And “hanging out” with self-controlled, prosocial peers may help preschoolers build crucial socio-emotional skills.

In one study, 4-year-olds who affiliated with more with prosocial peers showed more emotional positivity and less emotional negativity toward classmates later on — even after controlling for initial personality differences and the “culture” of the classroom (Fabes et al 2012). In another study, preschoolers tended to develop better self-regulation skills if they were exposed to peers who already showed higher levels of self-regulation (Choi et al 2018).

Which kids are most likely to make (and keep) friends?

Without a doubt, kids are in a better position to attract friends if they are pleasant, cooperative, self-controlled, and tuned into what other folks are thinking and feeling. 

Studies confirm that children tend to reject peers whom they perceive to be impulsively aggressive, disruptive, irritable, domineering, dishonest, or selfish (e.g., Carlson et al 1984; Molinero-González et al 2022; McClain et al 2022). Instead, they prefer social partners who are prosocial — kind, helpful, and socially adept (Mayeux et al 2011; Wolters et al 2014; Zhang et al 2018; Li et al 2023).

Children show these preferences early in life. For example, preschoolers are more likely to accept peers who are prosocial and unlikely to engage in hot-headed, “reactive” aggression. They are also more accepting of children who have good verbal skills — most likely because these skills are helpful for defusing conflict and enhancing cooperative play (Ladd et al 1988; Coie et al 1990; Earnhardt and Hinshaw 1994; Slaughter et al 2002; van der Wilt et al 2019).

In addition, young children are more likely to be accepted by their peers — and more likely to develop friendships — if they understand the thoughts and feelings of other people (Slaughter et al 2002; Caputi et al 2012; Fink et al 2014). And as kids get older, mind-reading skills (such as empathy, moral reasoning, and perspective-taking) are linked with likability and popularity (Dekovic and Gerris 1994; Slaughter et al 2015). 

Even among adolescents – where selfish and mean-spirited individuals often achieve social dominance – kids actively like and prefer peers who are more prosocial and cooperative (Wolters et al 2014; Meuwese et al 2018; Li et al 2023).

What can we do to foster friendship in children?

We can help kids initiate friendships by providing them with pleasant, non-threatening opportunities to meet compatible peers.

Studies suggest that kids are more likely to become friends if they have fun together, feel a sense of trust, and make each other feel good about themselves (Asher and Williams 1987). Moreover, friendships are more common between kids with similar interests and personal characteristics. Similar kids are more likely to agree about what’s fun. And relationships are less likely to become exploitative (with one partner benefiting more than the other) when both parties can offer each other advantages — like intellectual stimulation or social status (MacDonald 1996).

It also seems likely that we can help kids forge quality friendships by nurturing the development of certain social, emotional, and cognitive behaviors, including

How is it done? I suspect it begins at home — with the relationships kids have with their parents, caregivers, and siblings.

Friendships in children may be influenced by family experiences

A variety of studies suggest that kids who have secure attachments with their parents have better-quality friendships. For instance:

  • Research tracking kids from infancy has found that individuals who had experienced secure attachments as babies were more likely to have close friendships at 10 years of age (Frietag et al 1996).
  • Another study has reported that friendships between securely-attached preschoolers were more harmonious, less controlling, more responsive, and happier than were friendships involving an insecurely-attached partner (Park and Waters 1989).
  • A study of older children (aged 9-12), found that kids who felt they could count on their parents for help tended to report having better quality friendships with their peers (Leiberman et al 1999).
  • A University of Minnesota study tracked 78 people from infancy through their mid-20s. Researchers found that individuals who had been securely-attached at 12 months were rated by their elementary school teachers as more socially competent. And these more socially-competent kids were also more likely to have secure friendships at the age of 16 (Simpson et al 2007).

These are merely correlations, of course. Possibly, the link between parenting and peer relationships reflects a third variable, like genetics. In one study examining peer problems among three-year-olds, behavioral geneticists attributed 44% of differences between children to heritability (Benish-Weisman et al 2010).

But there are good theoretical grounds for thinking that secure attachments could help kids make friends, particularly during early childhood. Children who are securely-attached have learned that social relationships are rewarding. They’ve learned to trust. And that may inspire kids to make friendly overtures to peers.

Moreover, when kids have positive relationships with their parents — relationships that are warm, responsive, and nurturing — it provides them with a positive template for getting along with others.

Might this help guide children towards developing healthier relationships with peers? It makes sense, and there is some support for the idea. For example, when researchers have tracked adolescents over time, they’ve found that parent-child relationships are somewhat predictive of peer relationships: Teenagers tend to develop higher-quality friendships if their parents are supportive (Schulz et al 2023).

Consider, too, the effects of family talk.

Studies show that children who participate in family conversations about emotions and mental states tend to be more socially competent. As I note elsewhere, they may develop stronger “mind-reading” skills. And young children with siblings tend to perform better on certain Theory of Mind tasks — tasks that require kids to interpret other people’s emotions and recognize when other people’s beliefs differ from our own (Youngblade and Dunn 1995).

But none of this happens automatically. It appears that kids develop better social skills when adults and older siblings make an effort to teach them. For more information, see my research-based tips for fostering friendship in children.

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image of cute toddlers smiling together on pebbles by PRASANNAPiX / istock

Content of “Friendship in children” last modified 12/23. Portions of the text derive from earlier versions of the same article, written by the same author.

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