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Friendships Throughout Childhood

From an adult perspective, friendship involves voluntary interaction between two persons who relate to one another on a personal and individualized basis. As such, friendship is beyond the capacity of most children until about the age of ten or twelve. Prior to that time, however, children experience friendship in less complete but increasingly sophisticated ways, beginning with a rudimentary conception at about three years of age (Howes 1996; Rose and Asher 2000).

In 1992, William K. Rawlins proposed a means of categorizing children's friendships from toddlerhood through preadolescence with a classification system that has stood the test of time. Following Robert L. Selman (1981), Rawlins describes friends in the first phase (ages three to six years) as momentary physicalistic playmates. Children respond to age-mates they meet at, for example, day care or the playground, on the basis of physical characteristics or possessions. The children are "friends" as long as they are participating jointly in some enjoyable activity. They are often inclusive of one another and exclusive of "outsiders" when other children attempt to join them. This exclusiveness is transitory, however, as the children often lose interest in one activity and pick up another with different partners or new "friends." Brief quarrels, usually over toys or space, are common. Although short in duration, these quarrels involve expressing emotions, sometimes having one's own way, and sometimes being compelled to "give in." They often lead to shifts in playmates. During this period, children start developing some of the social skills necessary for forming more enduring friendships. They begin learning, for instance, to take turns and manage their emotions. Moreover, as they become familiar and comfortable with children they meet repeatedly, they start showing some degree of consistency in their preferred playmates.

Friendships of children from about six to nine years of age follow a pattern that Rawlins (1992) describes as opportunity and activity. The friends usually live close to one another and are of the same sex and similar in age, social status, and social maturity. They spend most of their time together in physical activities (skating, biking, sports), make-believe games related to domestic or work situations, fantasized athletic accomplishments, and "adventures" modeled after favorite fictional heroes.

Children at this age still tend to describe their friends according to physical characteristics and possessions, but sometimes think of them in more relational terms, such as showing liking and supportiveness. Whereas they realize that different people may see and respond to the same situation Two young boys in Madagascar display their friendship. Friends between the ages of six and nine spend most of their time together in physical activities, make-believe games, and "adventures" modeled after fictional heroes. CORY LANGLEY in different ways, they feel that friends should share points of view. Thus, one child is likely to see another as a friend only during times when their ideas coincide and when they like doing the same things. When they are not, they are not friends. During the "friendship times," they exchange benefits on a tit-for-tat basis. Thus, at this stage, friendships are on-and-off relationships that are largely self-oriented and opportunistic.

Between the ages of roughly nine and twelve years, children increasingly respond to others in terms of internal characteristics (attitudes, beliefs, values). They learn to infer these characteristics by observing the ongoing acts of others, and they are aware that others can, in turn, infer internal characteristics in the same way. With this cognitive ability, a child can "step outside" of the self and take the perspective of the other, including the perceptions the other has of her or him. This enables them to form friendships that Rawlins (1992) labels reciprocal and equal.

At this stage, children usually choose friends whose beliefs agree with their own. Such agreement confirms the correctness of their emerging views, thereby providing what psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan (1953) called consensual validation. To the degree that their perspectives differ, however, friends at this age are able to accommodate some of the differences and arrive at a shared outlook. Although the children still tend to be self-oriented and opportunistic, they realize that their friends are equal to them in the sense of being entitled to benefits from the relationship. Therefore, the exchange of rewards tends to be normative and reciprocal. That is, the child provides benefits when the friend has a need for them because that is what friends are supposed to do. That friend, of course, is expected to return the benefits for the same reason. Thus, friends are people who share ideas, interests and feelings, and who provide rewards on a broadly reciprocal basis. In the reciprocity and equality phase, then, children are on the fringes of a conception of friendship as a relatively stable relationship that transcends occasional disagreements and periods of separation.

At preadolescence (about ten to fourteen years of age), children acquire the ability and inclination to respond to other children in terms of personality traits and styles (nice, easy-going, mean, selfish) and special interests and attitudes. They sometimes see these characteristics as combining to make the other person uniquely admirable and attractive. This sets the stage for what Rawlins (1992) calls the period of mutuality and understanding in children's friendships.

According to Sullivan (1953), preadolescent children experience a need for interpersonal closeness in an especially poignant way, and express this need as a strong desire to establish a same-sex "chumship." Research generally confirms the nature of these chumships and the importance Sullivan attaches to them.

As two children come to recognize uniquely attractive features in one another, they are likely to become "real" friends. Such friends consider one another intrinsically worthwhile. They are loyal to one another and provide rewards, not with the expectation of reciprocation, but simply because the partner is deserving. Preadolescent friends share common day-to-day experiences to which they often react with an intensity and immediacy that either puzzles or amuses important adults such as parents and teachers. Therefore, chums are especially capable of providing empathy and understanding. At this stage, friendships not only build each child's self-esteem, they also provide a context for expressing and trying out personal thoughts and feelings in a free and unguarded manner. Such freedom is possible because friendships, while close and caring, lack the socially mandated responsibilities and inequities present in many relationships, such as that between parents and children.

Thus, children approaching adolescence begin to experience friendship in its full-blown form, that is, as an enduring relationship involving voluntary interdependence and a mutual personalized interest and concern. Through these friendships, they experience and practice empathy, altruism, unselfishness, and loyalty. There is, however, a darker side to preadolescent friendships. Because they are intense and exclusive, they often encourage cliquishness and animosity between sets of friends. At times, too, the friends themselves disagree, become jealous, become competitive, and have an occasional falling out. At this point, however, the partners have a conception of friendship as a relationship that usually persists in spite of episodic difficulties.

Throughout all the phases from toddlerhood through preadolescence, children are generally inclined to select friends of their own sex. Furthermore, girls' and boys' friendships differ, on the average, in several ways. Girls' friendships, for example, are more exclusively pair-oriented whereas boys' are more group- or gang-oriented. Girls tend to talk, "gossip," and exchange secrets more than boys, who concentrate on games, "projects," and shared activities. These contrasts fore-shadow overall gender differences that appear in adolescence and persist through adulthood.

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Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelationshipsFriendship - Definition And Characteristics, Benefits Of Friendship, Voluntariness And Contextual Factors In Friendship, Friendships Throughout Childhood