young people

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The importance of friendships among children

Friendships are ever so important in helping children develop emotionally and socially. They provide a platform for children to interact with one another. They learn the give and take of social behavior. Children begin to establish contacts with peers and to develop the fundamentals for play behavior. They also begin to show preferences for certain play mate . According to Maccoby & Jacklin, 1987; Ruble & Martin, 1998(pg.431) cited in Martin C L & Fabes R A (2001), “ One of the most widely recognized social characteristics of childhood is the preference that children show for same-sex play partners.”

Children with friends have a greater sense of well-being, better self-esteem and fewer social problems as an adult. On the contrary, children with friendship problems are more likely to feel lonely and victimized. They would have problems adjusting to school.

Hartup, 1992, concluded that children are better off with having friends than without. Friendships development can result in positive and negative outcomes. Children who have friends would be able to cope with stressful events (Winstead, Deriega, Lewis, Deriega, Lewis, Sanchez-Hucles, & Clarke, 1992). Costin and Jones, 1992, suggested that friendships aid in facilitating emotional responsiveness and pro social interventions.

(cited in Niffenegger J & Willer L (1998).

Children’s friendship behaviours

As cited in Niffenegger J & Willer L (1998), Selman (1981) suggested that by age 4 most children begin to form friendships as they interact with others. There are a variety of reasons for young children to develop friendships. Gottman (1983) contended that young children are more likely to become friends if they are able to establish a common-ground activity and manage any conflicts that arise. Burleson & Samter (1990) stated that friendships can change over the course of childhood and adolescence.

Rawlins (1989) stated that in friendships, the most basic activity is communication. The ability to form friendships and communicate well is important to an individual’s growth. Children can do many things with their friends. Dworetzky (1990) believed that forming emotional ties with one another is the most important thing in children’s friendship. Early childhood friendships provide experiences that are crucial to children’s cognitive, emotional and social development. According to Ladd and colleagues, friendship affects school’s attitudes and performance. (Ladd, 1990). For over a decade, there have been investigations on the differences in children’s social cognition and its link to differences in children’s peer relationships. (Berndt & Ladd, 1989; Bukowski et al.,1996).

As suggested by Rubin et al (1998) children differ in their ability to read and respond to their peer’s emotions, and this may play a key role in early friendships. Being able to understand when and why friends are distraught or feeling angry, and what would comfort and cheer them plays a central part in friendships. Being able to understand “other minds” differs with every child. This depended on the child’s ability to share an imaginative world with another, to read the intention of their friend and understanding the way their friend behave. Such differences affect the quality of children’s friendships. According to Dunn & Cutting, 1999, cooperative shared pretend play, low frequency of conflict, and successful communications between preschool friends are correlated to Theory-of-mind abilities. (cited in Dunn J, Cutting A & Fisher N (2002).

Children are constantly faced with moral issues in the context of their friendships. Issues on sharing, cheating, having empathy and understanding intentional or accidental harm arise in friendships. Differences in moral sensibility, emotional understanding and theory of mind, does affects the quality of later friendships. Dunn & Cutting,1999 found that the social understanding of both children in a friendship pair was associated with friendship quality. - Dunn J, Cutting A. and Fisher (2002).

Dishion, Spracklen, & Patterson, 1996) reported that pairs of friends, mostly of the same sex, influence each other. However, recent research done by Martin and Fabes(2001) concluded that the more time boys spent playing with other boys, the greater is the increase in their activity level. They spend less time with adults. Girls on the other hand, spent a large amount of time together but were near adults. There was less aggression, and the activity level decreased. The choice of girl type play materials and activities were present. This finding shows the powerful role for same-sex peers in shaping one another’s sex-typed behavior, values and interests (cited in Maccoby E (2002).

To some extent, there are differences in Girls’ and boys’ friendships. Girls’ friendships are more intimate they share information about the details of their lives and concerns. Boys’ friendships are based on shared activities. They do not know much about each other’s lives. Boys’ groups are more cohesive, seeking for more autonomy from adults. They tend to exclude girls from their activities. Friendships among boys are more interconnected; friends of a particular boy are more likely to be friends with other. As for girls, the friend of one may not be friends of all the others (cited in Maccoby E (2002).

Gender Development

Over the years, there were several major theories proposed to explain about gender development. These theories differ on several important dimensions.

Psychoanalytic Theory cited different processes to explain gender development in boys and girls. Children, both boys and girls are believed to identify with their mothers. However, at the age of 3 and 5 they began to identify with the same-sex parent. Children’s anxiety for fear of retaliation from the same-sex parent as a result of their attachment to the opposite-sex parent and jealousy toward same-sex parent was presumably resolved as a result of this identification. Children undertake comprehensive adoption of the characteristics and qualities of same-sex parent and become sex-typed. There is however, little empirical evidence to support psychoanalytic theory. According to Hetherington, 1967; Kagan,1964; Payne & Mussen,1956, “ a clear relationship between identification with the same-sex parent and gender role adoption has never been empirically verified. “ – cited in Socio Cognitive Perspective on Gender pg. 677.

According to Cognitive-developmental theory, “gender identity is postulated as the basic organizer and regulator of children’s gender learning ”(Kohlberg, 1966). Children develop the stereotypic conceptions of gender as they interact with their surroundings. Once this gender constancy is achieved, children’s belief in their own gender is fixed and irreversible. They would seek to behave only in ways that are fitting with this conception. Kohlberg put forward the following cognitive processes that create and maintain such regularity: “I am a boy, therefore I want to do boy things ( and to gain approval for doing them) is rewarding” (Kohlberg, 1966,p.89) – cited in Socio Cognitive Perspective on Gender pg. 677. This would suggest that much of children’s conduct is designed to confirm their gender identity. Once children establish knowledge of their own gender which leads to stable gender identity, it would means that the child has achieved gender constancy in cognitive-developmental theory terms. Kohlberg defined gender constancy as the recognition that one’s sex is permanent attribute tied to underlying biological factors. It is not dependent on artificial attributes such as hair length, dressing style, or choice of play activities (Kohlberg, 1966). Kohlberg’s (1966) theory did attract much attention over the decades, but it main beliefs did not fared well empirically.

There were also several Gender schema theories being proposed to explain gender development and differentiation. According to Martin & Halverson, 1981, children’s ability to identify themselves and others as males or females, is necessary for gender schema development. Martin & Little (1990) cited in Jacklin A and Lacey C (1997), argued that only a basic understanding of gender is necessary before children learn about sex stereotypes and begin to show strong sex-typed preferences for toys or friends. Lobel & Menashri (1993) suggested that the differences between children in toy preference behaviour are related to their understanding about cross-gender transgressions, a view supported by Carter & Levy (1988)- cited in Jacklin A and Lacey C (1997). Levy & Fivush, 1993; Martin, 1995; Martin & Halverson, 1981, suggested that once Gender schema is formed, it expands to include knowledge of activities and interests, personality and social attributes, and scripts about gender-linked activities. Children are expected to behave in ways consistent with traditional gender roles once this schema is developed.

Recent research work focuses on children’s tendency to congregate in same sex groups. Self-segregation of the two sexes would imply that childhood gender enactment occurred in the context of same-sex pairs or larger groups. From about the age of 3 to 8 or 9, children are mostly engaged in some of play when they congregate together in activities not structured by adults. Playtime interactions amongst boys involve rough-and-tumble play, each striving to achieve dominance. In contrast, girls usually talk and act reciprocally, while at the same time trying to get their own ideas across. However, it does not mean that the girls’ interactions are conflict free, but rather that they pursue their individual goals and yet strive to maintain harmony. (cited in Maccoby E 2002)

Children’s search for gender cues

Cited in Ruble D & Martin (2004), Young children actively search for gender cues in the world around them- who should or should not engage in a particular activity, who can play with whom, and why girls and boys are different. Cognitive perspective on gender development believes that children are actively looking for ways to make sense of the social world around them, and they do so by using the gender cues provided by society to help them identify with what they see and hear around them. Children are skillful in using these cues to form expectations about people and to develop personal standards for behavior. By the age of 5, they would have developed stereotypes to form impressions of others, to help guide their own behavior and actions. Kohlberg’s (1966) emphasized the active role of child in gender development, and stated that children’s understanding of gender concepts influences their behavior and eventually children would recognize that a person’s sex is stable and unchanging. In 1970s, Gender-schema theories emerged. Gender-schema states that children basic understanding of gender is all that is required to motivate their behavior and thinking. Over a period of time, Cognitive developmental and gender-schema theories have been influential in promoting the idea that children actively construct gender based on the nature of the social environment and how they think about the sexes.

There are three central features of cognitive theories of gender development.

The Emergence of gender identity and its consequences

Children recognize that there are two gender groups and that they belong to one of them. There are consequences to the recognition. They are both evaluative and motivational-informational.

Evaluative Consequences

Research states that young children like their own sex more than the other. Ruble & Martin, 1998 suggested that children attributed more positive characteristics to their own sex than to the other. According to Maccoby, 1998, there is a striking tendency in children to segregate by sex when they choose play partners.

Motivational and informational consequences

Ruble & Martin, 1998 states that children’s motivation to learn about gender, to gather information about their gender group and to act like their group members are affected by the emergence of gender identity and understanding of the social group stability. An example cited by Bradbard, Martin, Endsley, & Halverson, 1986 is that of children who have achieved gender identity pay more attention to and remember more information relevant to toys they believe are suitable for their own gender group than for toys they believed to be suited for the opposite sex.

Active, Self-Initiated View of Gender Development

Gender identification produces a new motivation that is initiated by and originates from the child. Children are motivated to learn about a social category that he or she is actively constructing as part of a process of searching for meaning in the social world.

Children tend to exaggerate male-female differences, even if none exist. Experimental research also suggests that young children are quick to conclude about sex differences base on one single instance. Bauyer & Coyne, 1997 cited an example where by 3 year olds who were told that a particular boy likes a sofa and a particular girl likes a table, they would generalize this information to conclude that another girl would also like the table.

Developmental Pattern

A major aspect of cognitive theories of gender is the emphasis on developmental changes in understanding gender. This may be due to children’s cognitive abilities and their developing understanding of concepts. The rigidity of children’s gender-related beliefs and behaviours is expected to wane across development. The early learning of gender and stereotyping which appears first, very rigid ( that only boys or only girls can do or be something), follows by more flexible, realistic beliefs ( that either sex can do almost anything). Trautner et al., 2003 suggested that Gender stereotyping can be characterized by three ordered phases. Firstly, during toddler and preschool years, children begin to learn about gender-related characteristics. Secondly, the newly acquired gender knowledge is further strengthened in a rigid either-or fashion, reaching its peak of rigidity between 5 and 7 years. Thirdly, after its peak, a phase of relative flexibility follows.

Impact of peers on gender development

Cited in Bandura A & Bussey K (1999), peer groups become another agency of gender development as children social worlds expand beyond homes. Peers are sources of children’s social learning. As stated by Bandura, 1997; Schunk, 1987, children model and adopt styles of conduct and serve as comparative references for evaluation and validation of personal worth. Huston 1983 agrees that children selectively interact with same-gender playmates pursuing gender-typed interests and activities. According to LaFreniere, Strayer, & Gauthier,1984; Moller & Serbin, 1996; Yee & Brown, 1994 found that segregation occurs earlier for girls than for boys. As suggested by Hayden Thomson, Rubin, & Hymel,1987, Gender segregation occurs not only in playgroups but also in the choice of friends. Lamb, Easterbrooks, & Holden 1980 also concluded that children would reward each other for gender appropriate activities and punish inappropriate gender conducts. Thorne, 1986 states that Children tend to apply the same negative sanctions for playing with peers of the opposite gender. Boys tend to be more consistent in applying negative sanctions for other -gender conduct and playmates. Boys react more positively to same-sex peers but are less approving of boys who engage in female-linked behaviours or activities.

Leaper, 1994: Maccoby, 1990,1998 states that recent theorizing has singled out peer group as the prime socializing agency of gender development .

Cited in Hibbard D R & Burhmester D B(1998), Maccoby (1990) suggested that peers may play an important role in social interaction style. Children as young as 3 years old through age 11 shows gender segregation in their peer interactions. Similarly, Beal (1994) states that social environment beyond family does shape children’s behavior as boys and girls. Boys and girls socialize one another into traditional gender role and those who deviate from gender role-appropriate activities or influencing friend to do something else, would be ‘punished’ by criticisms or abandonment. ( Beal (1994) p.121) Past research shows that young children response negatively to peer’s violation of gender-typed toy preferences and play activities. (Lamb, Easterbrooks, & Holden, 1980; Roopnarine, 1984). Children are careful in their choice of gender-appropriate toy when other children are present ( Serbin, Conner, Burchardt, & Citron, 1979). Children apparently have discovered that if they want to fit into the peer group, gender role expectations have to be followed. (Lamb, Easterbrooks, & Holden, 1980; Roopnarine, 1984 ).


To conclude, several studies suggested that young children show signs that they choose to interact more closely with others of their own sex. Children’s growing awareness of gender develops alongside with friendship formation. Friendship is an important aspect of life for young children.

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