Early Childhood Education

Peers and Friends


Sometime during the second year, young children usually experience large increases in the amount of time they spend interacting with their peers or age mates. As young children’s social interactions with peers outside of the family group increases, so does the importance of these relations in shaping their lives and development. This entry will describe some theories or concepts that help us understand peer interactions and explain the types of social interactions and relationships that young children experience. It will also discuss the characteristics and skills of children that affect peer interactions and describe possible short- and long-term consequences of these relations.


Underlying Theories and Concepts

One contemporary framework that is particularly useful in considering children’s relations with peers is the child-by-environment perspective (e.g., Ladd 2003). This approach tells us that children come to social settings with different sets of traits and skills that help determine the kinds of peer interactions they experience. This approach also suggests that aspects of a particular social setting itself (e.g., a preschool classroom) will likewise have effects on children’s interactions and adjustment. Peer social interactions thus become a “two-way street,” with children bringing characteristics or social skills to a context, and the peers (and others) in that setting responding and affecting the social relations and the adjustment a child experiences in that setting. Adults interested in understanding young children’s peer relations should look closely at the characteristics of the child and those of the peer environment, and view them as parts of an interacting system. Efforts to improve children’s peer relations or social adjustment may also need to target specific aspects of both the child and peer environment in order to be successful.

Another important idea that shapes our understanding of young children’s peer relationships comes from attachment theory. This theory suggests that children form peer relationships using a model of the self and others based on their early caregiver relationships (see the section Parenting and Family). Cognitive theorists Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky also suggested that peer interactions play a role in cognitive development and problem solving. In their models, conflict (Piaget) and cooperation (Vygotsky) with peers support cognitive development and more advanced thinking and reasoning. Research has supported the idea that children working with peers often display more advanced problem-solving ability than they can when working alone.


The Peer Environment: Interactions and Relationships

In any setting where children are with peers there is a range in the degree of social contact. At one end of the range there are minimal interactions where children seldom communicate with peers or coordinate their activities, for example, short-term interactions with peers they don’t know. At the other end of the range are relationships that involve repeated and frequent interactions, intimacy, communication, and cooperation; elaborate pretend games of house or school are examples of this. The degree of cooperation, communication, and interaction that young children are capable of with peers also increases dramatically across early childhood as communication skills, cognitive development, and emotional control improve. Given these different types of relations, it follows that there are likely to be different effects on children participating in them—some of these possible outcomes are discussed below.


Play with peers. Mildred Parten (1933), a pioneer in studying children’s peer relations, suggested that preschoolers’ social interactions emerge in a sequence that begins with nonsocial activity, where toddlers watch others without interaction or engage in solitary, individual play near one another. This is followed by limited interactions in parallel play, where children play near each other while doing similar activities but do not try to influence the play of others or cooperate. Next comes the more complex and demanding interactions of associative play, where children play separately but interact verbally, exchange toys and ideas, and comment on each other’s behavior. Finally, the most complex and demanding play interactions to emerge in older toddlers are labeled cooperative play, where children play make-believe games and coordinate intricate pretend roles and activity. While Parten’s categories have been elaborated upon, the order that she suggested remains accurate, although we now know that even older children still spend a significant proportion of their time in solitary or parallel play. Only certain kinds of solitary activity, such as high proportions of aimless or unoccupied activity, or a high degree of repetitive motor action, suggest developmental delay or adjustment problems.


Friendships. As children’s social abilities develop and their peer interactions increase, they begin to have peers with whom they develop more intimate dyadic relationships, or friendships. While some psychologists argue that younger toddlers may not actually maintain friendships in the sense that school-aged children do, it is clear that even two-year-olds interact more and prefer familiar peers and playmates with whom they have positive relationships. Older toddlers and preschoolers are usually capable of describing their friends and friendships in a way that makes it clear they value and enjoy these one-on-one relationships. Young children’s friendships also often involve conflict as well (often more conflict occurs within friendships than with peers who are not friends). Children vary widely in their ability to maintain and repair relationships in the face of conflict, and the degree of conflict present in a friendship also helps define the quality of that relationship. By early childhood most children participate in at least a few close friendships, but relationships vary in quality, with some friendships characterized by high levels of conflict and stress. Within larger groups of children, there are also networks of dyads that form small groups within classrooms or peer settings, with some children being more socially connected across the different groups, while others are more isolated.


Group relations. As children interact in larger groups (e.g., in preschool classrooms), there are social relations at the group level that are important as well. Researchers have labeled some of these relations as peer acceptance or popularity— this reflects how well liked a child is, in general, by their peer group. Acceptance is not the intimate and dyadic relationship of friendship, but a picture of how well accepted the child is as a playmate. This type of relationship provides children with different social resources than friendships, and it may be more important as an indicator of how easily a child is able to get peer support for completing academic tasks or gain access to peer groups, play materials, or playground equipment.

Children also tend to form dominance hierarchies in their peer groups. This ordering of children according to their power and status often determines which children prevail in conflicts within the group (e.g., over toys or playground equipment). Established dominance hierarchies, though they are formed using verbal or physical conflict, often serve to reduce the level of aggression in groups as children become aware of their roles and the roles of others in the hierarchy.


Child Characteristics: What’s Important for Developing Peer Interactions and Relationships?

Traits, behaviors, and peers. An important characteristic in young children’s ability to enter into peer relations is their behavior. For example, peers quickly notice which of their age mates tend to more aggressive or withdrawn. Both of these characteristics have a negative impact on children’s friendships and the degree to which they are liked or disliked by peers (i.e., accepted vs. rejected). Aggressive children, in particular, are frequently avoided by peers and tend to have lower- quality friendships, with more conflict and less trust or intimacy. Aggression and social withdrawal are both associated with early temperamental characteristics that children display—infants with difficult or active temperaments may be more aggressive as toddlers or preschoolers, whereas more inhibited infants tend to be more withdrawn.

Emotional control also appears to be an early ability that supports better peer relations. Toddlers who are highly emotional and have less emotional control, even if they are sociable, often have a more difficult time entering into positive social interactions and maintaining relationships. Preschoolers who are better able to regulate their emotions tend to be more socially competent, have more friends, and are more popular as playmates. While children’s tendencies to be more aggressive or withdrawn have strong connections to their genetic makeup and are likely inherited from their parents, the early social environment is also important in shaping their skills and later relations with peers.


Parenting and family. Attachment theory tells us that children’s later social relationships are based on an internal model of themselves that they form in their early caregiver interactions. Infants and toddlers with caregivers that give them reliable, sensitive, warm, and caring support tend to become more securely attached. These children trust caregivers and form a more positive caregiver-child bond—those children who receive less consistent or sensitive care are more likely to be insecurely attached. Securely attached children tend to be more socially competent and skilled in interactions with peers and adults and are also more likely to have greater social self-competence. These characteristics, in turn, help children more confidently explore new surroundings and social settings. Research also demonstrates that securely attached toddlers do better navigating the social challenges of preschool and the daily demands of getting along with others.

Parents also directly teach children social skills and/or coach peer behaviors. For example, parents who actively arrange and encourage peer play opportunities for young children tend to have children who are socially well adjusted. How parents oversee these play interactions is also important: parents who are either too intrusive or who don’t monitor peer interactions closely enough tend to have preschoolers who are less socially well adjusted later on. Appropriate parental or adult monitoring (including that of teachers) that allows children as much responsibility in their interactions as they may safely handle on their own is helpful for children as they learn to interact with peers independently.

This support for child autonomy, in the context of a warm and supportive relationship and consistent standards for age-appropriate behavior, also helps foster positive peer interactions. Parents who use more authoritarian or coercive practices tend to have children who are more aggressive and more likely to be rejected by peers. In many cultures and communities, teachers also fulfill similar roles to parents as they support positive peer interactions. Warm relationships with teachers, especially those that support appropriate levels of autonomy, also help foster more socially skilled and well-adjusted preschoolers.


Across cultures. As we consider parent and teacher roles in peer relations, it becomes apparent that there is likely to be a lot of variation in parent influence on children’s peer relations across cultural settings and communities. As cultural values vary, so too do parent and teacher support for different kinds of relationships or social skills. On one hand, there is remarkable agreement among cross-cultural studies (e.g., in China and in Canada) that positive and supportive relations with parents are linked to having well-adjusted children. Parents in China, however, are more likely to value group cohesion and may encourage their children to be more cautious, dependent, and self-restrained. In their culture, shy and quiet children are more likely to be labeled as good children—these beliefs are not typically found in the same degree in North American or European families. Similarly, Chinese parents may socialize their children to be more behaviorally inhibited than North American children—this may be an adaptive trait for Chinese toddlers (e.g., Chen, Hasting, and Rubin, 1998). In addition to social behaviors, the particular kinds of relationships that are valued may also differ. Chinese parents are more likely to value cooperative and less conflictual relationships than North American parents (this is not to say that relationships of North American children are less adaptive—only that they often include more conflict). Psychologists believe that this is related to cultural values of individualism/autonomy versus group identity/collectivism—Western cultures such as those typical of North America typically place a higher value on individualism, while other cultures value collectivist ideals more highly.

This evidence suggests that the social skills and peer relations that are “best” in a culture or community are likely to vary along with cultural norms. It seems clear that an accurate understanding of peer relations and their effects on adjustment must look at the cultural norms and practices in the community of interest.


Outcomes: What Are Some of the Long-Term Effects of Peer Relations?

The interaction of child characteristics with the peer context clearly makes up an important part of young children’s lives. Accordingly, we can also describe some important outcomes that have consistently been linked to early peer relations. While it is a difficult job to tease out the effects of the relations from those of the child’s individual behavior, some outcomes have shown up consistently and over long enough periods for us to describe here. Whether the peer context is a source of support or stress, it is likely to impact children’s futures in a number of ways.


Academic and cognitive effects. Children who have a history of being rejected by peers are more likely than accepted children to have long-term adjustment problems, especially in academic settings. This may be especially true for those with longer histories of rejection. Young children who begin preschool or kindergarten with peer relationship problems and especially those who have long-term peer problems, are often less engaged in the classroom or achieve lower grades later on. These problems can extend to truancy, school drop-out, and delinquency in adolescence. Children who have no friends or have only a few friendships of poor quality are also more likely to have academic adjustment problems, as well as social and emotional difficulties.


Social and psychological adjustment. Rejected children also often have long-term psychological problems such as increased aggression, substance abuse, internalizing problems, and attention problems. More accepted children typically have better long-term adjustment patterns. Children who have quality friendships and view their relationships positively also appear to be better adjusted psychologically and see their friendships as a source of social and emotional support. In kindergarten classrooms, for example, children with friends were happier at school, viewed classmates as more supportive, and had more positive attitudes about school. Children with no close friendships (as opposed to even one or two), in particular, appear especially at risk for more negative attitudes and later adjustment problems.

In sum, children’s peer relations in early childhood take different forms and serve different functions as children develop. It is clear that children, their families, and their schools all have important characteristics that affect the quality and adjustment outcomes of peer relations. Children’s temperament and family environment impact the skills and behaviors that they bring to peer contexts. The interactions and relationships in those contexts, in turn, shape later adjustment. The social characteristics and behaviors children display with peers in early childhood are important in shaping the peer relations that occur. Understanding more about children’s peer interactions and how the processes they experience in these relations might affect later adjustment are central to any understanding of young children’s welfare and development. See also Culture; Parents and Parent Involvement; Peer Culture; Preschool/Prekindergarten Programs.

Further Readings: Buhs, E. S., and G. W. Ladd (2001). Peer rejection in kindergarten as an antecedent of young children’s school adjustment: An examination of mediating processes. Developmental Psychology 37, 550-560; Chen, X., P. D. Hastings, and K. H. Rubin (1998). Child-rearing attitudes and behavioral inhibition in Chinese and Canadian toddlers: A cross-cultural study. Developmental Psychology 34, 677-686; Coie, J. D. (2004). The impact of negative social experiences on the development of antisocial behavior. In J. B. Kupersmidt and K. A. Dodge, eds., Children’s peer relations: From development to intervention. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, pp. 243-267; Ladd, G. W. (2003). Probing the adaptive significance of children’s behavior and relationships in the school context: A child by environment perspective. Advances in Child Behavior and Development 31, 43-104; Rubin, K. H., W. Bukowski, and J. Parker (1998). Peer interactions, relationships and groups. In W. Damon, series ed. and N. Eisenberg, vol. ed., Handbook of child psychology. 5th ed. New York: Wiley, pp. 619-700; Parten, M. (1933). Social play among preschool children. Journal of Abnormal and social Psychology 28, 136-147.

Eric S. Buhs and Melanie S. Rudy