Companions or peers with whom one has common interests, emotional bonds, and social relationships.
Why have friends? "To have somebody to play with," responds the 9-year-old. "So you won't be alone. To have someone to back you up, to stand by you," answers the 12-year-old. These two replies reflect a developmental perspective on friends and friendships that appears to be characteristic of children in diverse cultures and societies.
Although children have many peers in playgroups, classrooms, and neighborhoods, they have a more select group of friends and an even smaller number of "best" friends. Carollee Howes noted that friendships in preschools emerge out of mutual social attraction and a "climate of agreement," in which children find it easy to be with each other and to engage in the sort of activities they both enjoy. These early friendships provide children with opportunities to cooperate and communicate with others. Consequently, children who have formed stable friendships are more able to complete complex activities with each other than with peers who are not friends. Friendships are often among children of the same sex.
The likelihood that children's close friendships are with members of the same sex rises to near certainty during middle childhood so that by age 12, nearly all American children identify a same sex peer as their "best friend." In addition to activities of mutual interest, friends tend to talk to each other—about themselves, their teachers, their families, and especially peers. In fact, Parker and Gottman (1989) concluded that gossip was a fundamental aspect of friendships in the middle childhood years when children's awareness of hierarchical social standing and popularity highlight their own relative status in comparison to others. Gossip among friends seems to serve the function of exploring those relative relationships and ascertaining one's own status.
Although best friends tend to be of the same sex, boys and girls are certainly not segregated altogether during middle childhood years. Contact in schools and neighborhoods may often be in groups of male friends meeting groups of female friends, sometimes for joint activities and sometimes for teasing or other provocations, often involving "who likes whom."
By adolescence the intimate nature of friendship has emerged, especially for girls. Even by age 12, friends are described as someone special, someone who stands by you and "backs you up." Compared to the friendships of middle childhood, based largely on mutual interests and activities, adolescent friendships also reflect each other's attitudes, values, and beliefs. Adolescents report spending
Robert Selman believes that there is a further shift in the concept of friendship from early to later adolescence. The earlier emphasis on developing mutual intimacy and support changes as more mature adolescents develop an appreciation of friends' needs to establish relations with others without interpreting that need as a threat to the original relationship. Selman has also examined the growth of perspective-taking ability, and has found that the sophistication of one's ability to take on the perspective of others is correlated to one's level of friendship development. Further, children with clinical problems often have impaired social relations, poorly developed friendships, and difficulties with perspective taking.
Friendships are special relationships, and needs to be distinguished from general peer relations. Clare Stocker and Judith Dunn, for example, have studied the sibling, peer, and friendship relations of 5- to 10-year-olds. Although they found no patterns linking sibling and peer relationships, they found that children who had the most conflictual relationships with their siblings were described by their mothers as having closer and more positive best friendships compared to children with more positive sibling relationships. Stocker and Dunn suggest that children may compensate for conflictual family relationships by investing in their friendships. On the other hand, hostile, controlling relationships with siblings may provide the child with sufficient experience to be particularly adept at other intimate social relationships. What is clear, however, is that these relations do not hold for same age peers in general, but only for close friends, an indication that, among children's social relations, friendships assume a privileged status.
Parker, J. G., and J. M. Gottman. "Social and Emotional Development in a Relational Context: Friendship Interactions from Early Childhood to Adolescence." In T. J. Berndt, and G. W. Ladd, eds. Peer Relationships in Child Development. New York: Wiley, 1989.
Selman, R. "The Child as Friendship Philosopher." In S. R. Asher, and J. M. Gottman, eds. The Development of Children's Friendships. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
Howes, C. "Peer Interaction of Young Children." Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, Serial No. 217, 1987, no. 53, p. 1.
Stocker, C, and J. Dunn. "Sibling Relationships in Childhood: Links with Friendships and Peer Relationships." British Journal of Developmental Psychology 8, 1990, pp. 227-244.