Child Development: Influence of Friendship On Cognitive Development (A Must Read for Teachers and Parents)

What is Friendship?
Friends are people who feel affection for one another and enjoy spending time together. Reciprocity characterizes the nature of most friendships. Friends typically have mutual regard for one another, exhibit give-and-take in their behaviors, and benefit in comparable ways from their social interaction. The formation, nature, and effects of friendship all change as children develop. Despite these changes, having friends is important to children’s overall development, and friendship has an impact on children’s social, emotional, and cognitive growth.

Friend Selection
Who is friends with whom? For young children, proximity is a key factor in friend selection. Preschoolers tend to become friends with peers who are nearby physically as neighbors or playgroup members. Similarity in age is a major factor in friendship selection, and children tend to make friends with age mates, particularly in Western societies, where schools are segregated by age.

Another powerful factor in friend selection is gender: girls tend to be friends with girls, and boys tend to be friends with boys. The preference for same-sex friends emerges in preschool and continues through childhood. To a lesser degree, children tend to be friends with peers of the same race.

Beyond these basic factors, a key determinant of friendship is similarity of interests and behaviors. During the preschool and elementary years, children prefer peers who have a similar style of play. As children grow older, they tend to have friends who have similar temperaments, prosocial and antisocial behaviors, and levels of acceptance by peers. Adolescent friends tend to be similar in their interests and attitudes, and in the degree to which they have explored options in regard to issues such as dating, education, and future occupations.

Changes in the Nature of Friendship
The quality and nature of friendship vary as a function of age. Children as young as two can have friends, and even twelve- to eighteen-month-olds select and prefer some children to others.

Toddlers laugh, smile at, touch, and engage in more positive interactions with some peers more than others. In the preschool years cooperation and coordination in children’s interactions with friends increases, and friends are more likely to engage in shared pretend play. Friends also have higher rates of conflict than non-friends, likely due to the greater amount of time they spend together. However, friends are more likely than non-friends to resolve conflicts in ways that result in equal outcomes rather than one child winning and another losing.

In the elementary school years, interactions among friends and non-friends show the same patterns as in the preschool years but become more sharply defined. Closeness, loyalty, and equality become important features of friendship. Friends, as opposed to acquaintances (or non-friends), talk more to each other, cooperate, and work together more effectively.

In conflicts, friends are more likely to negotiate, compromise, take responsibility for the conflict, and give reasons for their arguments. During adolescence peers become increasingly important. Friendships evolve into more intimate, supportive, communicative relationships. Many teens become intimate friends with members of the opposite sex, usually around the time that they start dating.

Social competencies such as initiating interactions, self-disclosure, and provision of support increase as preadolescents mature into early adolescents, and are related to quality of friendship. In general, during early adolescence friends begin to value loyalty and intimacy more, becoming more trusting and self-disclosing.

Tolerance of individuality between close friends also increases with age, and friends’ emphasis on control and conformity decreases. Changes in the Conception of Friendship Children’s conception of friendship changes with age. Young children define friendship primarily on the basis of interactions in the here-and-now and actual activities with their peers.

At age seven or eight, friends tend to be viewed in terms of rewards and costs (e.g., certain friends are fun to be with or have interesting toys). When children are about ten years old, issues such as loyalty, making an active attempt to understand one another, and openly discussing personal thoughts and feelings become important components of friendship.

Pre-adolescents and adolescents emphasize cooperative reciprocity (doing the same for one another), equality, trust, and mutual understanding between friends. It is unclear how much the age differences in children’s conceptions of friends reflect real differences in their thinking about friendships or reflect differences in how well young children can express their ideas.

Influence of Parenting on Friendship
As children develop, they spend increasing amounts of time alone and with friends. Particularly during adolescence, there is a dramatic drop in the amount of time teens spend with their parents. Despite these changes in time allocation, research indicates that parents influence interactions with peers. Children and adolescents bring many qualities to their friendships that develop early in life as a result of socialization experiences in the family.

Researchers find that children and adolescents from warm, supportive families are more socially competent and report more positive friendships. Further, there is evidence that parental responsiveness lessens the effects of negative peer influences. For example, an adolescent with a close friend who uses drugs is at risk primarily if the adolescent’s parents are cold, detached, and disinclined to monitor and supervise the adolescent’s activities.

Research also suggests that adolescents without close friends are more influenced by families than peers, and that adolescents in less cohesive and less adaptive families are more influenced by peers than family members.

Influence of Friends on One Another Friends can have negative effects on children if they engage in problematic behaviors. For example, aggressive children tend to have aggressive friends. Similarly, adolescents who smoke or abuse alcohol or drugs tend to have friends who do so. However, because children tend to chose friends who are similar to themselves in behaviors, attitudes, and identities, it is difficult to determine whether friends actually affect one another behavior or if children simply seek out peers who think, act, and feel as they do.

Some research suggests that friends do influence one another behavior, at least to some degree or for some people. For example, some investigators have found that peer contact predicts problem behavior primarily among children who have a history of problem behavior.

Friends likely influence children and adolescents in positive as well as negative ways. Friends influence academic achievement and prosocial behaviors. Particularly during adolescence, individuals are influenced by friends because they admire their peers and respect the opinions of their friends, not typically because of coercive pressures. Teens are most influenced by peers in middle adolescence, compared to early and late adolescence.

Friendship and Healthy Development
As suggested by important developmental theorists like Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, and Harry Stack Sullivan, friends provide emotional support, validation and confirmation of the legitimacy of one’s own thoughts and feelings, and opportunities for the development of important social and cognitive skills.

Children with friends are less likely to feel lonely, and friendships provide a context for the development of
social skills and knowledge that children need to form positive relationships with other people. In general, having friends is associated with positive developmental outcomes, such as social competence and adjustment. For example, young children’s initial attitudes toward school are more positive if they begin school with a large number of prior friends as classmates.

Exchanges with friends also promote cognitive development. This is because children are more likely to criticize each other’s ideas and to elaborate and clarify their own thoughts with friends than non-friends or adults. Children also benefit from talking and working together, and older friends often act as mentors for younger children.

Friendships serve as a buffer against unpleasant experiences, like peer victimization and teasing from other children. Because friendships fill important needs for children, it might be expected that having friends enhances children’s long-term social and emotional health.

In fact, having a close, reciprocated best friend in elementary school has been linked to a variety of positive psychological and behavioral outcomes for children, not only during the school years but also years later in early adulthood.

This is especially true if children’s friendships are positive and do not have many negative features. In summary, the nature of friendship changes as children grow, and friendship plays an important role in development. As children mature, friends rely on each other and increasingly provide a context for self disclosure and intimacy.

Adolescent friends, more than younger friends, use friendships as a context for self-exploration, problem solving, and a source of honest feedback. Friendship is important in healthy growth and development, and children with close friendships reap the benefits of these relationships well into adulthood.

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