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As Winfrey once said, “Lots of people want to ride with you in the limo, but what you want is someone who will take the bus with you when the limo breaks down” (n.d.). Relationships are essential in our daily lives as it provides us with companionship, stimulation, physical and emotional support, social comparison, and affection (Santrock, 2007b). Whether it is our family, a friendship, or even a romantic relationship, relationships with others provides us a sense of purpose in life as it motivates us to keep going on. Undeniably, we have ever changing peers in our lives. Of course, some of our peers remain with us as we grow up, but more often than not, they seem to leave; however, new friends are always made again. Having that in mind raises these questions: how do relationships with peers change in middle childhood and adolescence? What influences popularity and choice of friends?
Erikson defined middle childhood as the age between 5 to 12 years old, and adolescence as the period of age between 13 to early twenties (Ciccarelli & White, 2009). Popularity on the other hand is defined as the state of being liked, enjoyed, or supported by a large number of people (Hornby & Sydney, 2005). According to LaFontana and Cillessen (2002), popularity can be defined in two ways: sociometric popularity and perceived popularity. Sociometric popularity is based on peer status: being liked by others, while perceived popularity is based on reputation: whether one thinks another person is popular. For the purpose of this paper, middle childhood is defined as the period of age between 6 to 11 years old, while adolescence is defined as the age between 12 to 21 years old (Santrock, 2009). Popularity is referring to both sociometric and perceived popularity and is defined as the degree of acceptance by peers and the degree of social dominance (Meijs, Cillessen, Scholte, Segers, & Spijkerman, 2008). It is my contention to put forth the notion that the relationship with peers change in middle childhood and adolescence in terms of peer status, the size of the peer group and the people that make the peer group, and the reasons for investing in a relationship. As for what influences popularity, I take the stand that intelligence, physical attraction, and aggression are the major factors in determining popularity. In regards to choice of friends, selection and socialisation plays a vivid role in influencing one’s choice of friends.
In middle childhood, relationship with peers changes in terms of peer status (the degree to which a person is liked), as reciprocity becomes more important due to increased social interactions. In childhood, peers were mainly for play purposes. However, as one grows older, peers become more important for companionship and emotional support. According to Santrock (2009), peer status can be divided into 5 categories: popular children, rejected children, average children, neglected children, and controversial children. Popular children are those that are frequently nominated as best friends and seldom disliked by their peers, while rejected children are those that are seldom nominated as best friends and frequently disliked by others. Average children are those who receive an average number of positive and negative nominations from their peers. Neglected children are those that are seldom nominated as best friends but they are not disliked by their peers. Controversial children are those that are frequently nominated as a best friend, but at the same time are disliked by others. There is a relationship between peer status with regards to academic achievement and depression (Bolger, Patterson, & Kupersmidt, 1998; Schwartz, Dodge, Pettit, & Bates 2000). A study done by Schwartz, Gorman, Duong, and Nakamoto (2008) on 199 elementary school children with an average age of 9.1 years found that children who have fewer friends did poorer academically and were more depressed as compared to those who had many friends. This implies that social support or friendships are important in academic achievement and to promote good mental health. As such, parents should inculcate good social interaction skills in their children since young so that their children can socialise effectively in the society and avoid the adverse effects that come with being a child with few friends. However, the limitation of this study is that it is for those in middle childhood and early adolescents; hence, the result cannot be generalise to other periods of development.
With regards to gender, a famous study by Dunphy (1963) indicates that opposite-sex participation in social groups increases during adolescence as compared to same-sex groups when in early or middle childhood (as cited in Santrock, 2007a). Moreover, there is a difference in the size of these groups and the people who form these groups. In early childhood, the people whom we formed our peer groups with were usually those who came from the same neighbourhood as us. However, in the adolescence stage, the people who we form this peer group with are of individuals from a more heterogeneous group-many of which are individuals whom we have never met before. Also, usually, there is a leader in an adolescent peer group as compared to a childhood peer group (Santrock, 2007a). Nonetheless, despite the rigid single-sexed structure of friendship breaking down in middle childhood and adolescence, adolescents continue to have predominantly same-sex friends. However, there is a difference between the level of intimacy shown by males and females in their relationship in middle childhood and adolescence (as cited in Rice and Dolgin, 2005). In a friendship, females tended to disclosed more than boys do to their peers because boys believed that they will be teased if they disclosed too much about themselves to their friends. Hence, when boys do talk, it is usually in the form of bragging about their achievements. In contrast, women are generally more likely to turn to friends for emotional support. In a study done on 409 Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) positive patients, it was found that women’s difficulty in receiving emotional support reported higher levels of distress as compared to males (Gordillo, et al., 2009). This implies that women are more expressive, and that they need more emotional support as compared to males, be it to share their problems with or even to know that someone is there for them. Not only that, in an adolescent group, males are also more likely to engage in competition, conflict and ego displays as compared to females who are more likely to act in a same manner (Santrock, 2007a). Gender differences are apparent in the relationship in adolescence: male friendship tended to reflect more shared interest while female friendships tended to reflect more supportive and emotional aspects of friendship (Ashford, LeCroy, & Lortie, 2006).
In terms of the purpose of forming a relationship, there is a significant difference between the relationship in middle childhood and the relationship in adolescence. In middle childhood, relationships are formed mainly for companionships: we need someone to talk to and to share our problems with. Nonetheless, it is different in adolescence. In adolescence, relationships can be for companionship and also intimacy (Holloway, Holloway, Witte, & Zuker, 2003). This difference may have been due to the society’s schemas which discourage children in the middle childhood to have intimate relationships since it is against the social norm. An ethnographic study done by Liang (2003) in Taiwan on 28 Taiwanese working-class preschool children (aged 3-6 years) found that cross gender friendships were under pressure of being accused as romantic relationships, even though the children were at a tender age of 5 to 6 years old. This shows how social schemas or norms affect social interactions and relationships. As one experience more prevalent emotions in adolescence and engage in more meaningful relationships, they also tend to fall in love (Ashford et al., 2006). However, Erikson identified intimacy as the core task for early adults, not adolescence. This may have been due to various factors such as differing definitions of intimacy, cultural factors, and also media influences through the sensationalising of romantic scenes through movies and TV series. A cross-cultural study done in China and Canada on 496 Chinese adolescents and 395 Canadian adolescents aged 16-17 years with regards to romantic relationships found that Chinese adolescents were less likely to have any form of romantic involvement, including a romantic relationship. They also displayed lower levels of romantic experience, and had fewer close romantic relationships due to good parental relationships, unlike in Canada (ZiHong, Connolly, Dapeng, Pepler, & Craig, 2010). This shows that the norms of having romantic relationships differs across cultures, hence the difference in the age people start dating across countries.
Popularity can be influenced by various factors, of which one of them is intelligence. Intelligence can be further divided into two categories: social intelligence and cognitive intelligence. Social intelligence is the ability to understand and deal with people and to act sensibly in human relationships (Sternberg, 2000). Sternberg & Kaufman (1998) and Wechsler (1975) defined cognitive intelligence as the ability to gain knowledge, the ability to learn through experiences, and the ability to adapt to new situations or solve problems using the available resources (as cited in Ciccarelli & White, 2009). Both sociometric and perceived popularity is influenced by social intelligence. This is because people who have high social intelligence would generally have better interpersonal relationships with others as they tend to know how to please people and make them happy. This causes them to be liked by others. They also gain a sense of social dominance in the society as their competence in handling their own emotions and the emotions of others lead to good leadership abilities. An example: a study done by Meijs et al. (2008) on 512 adolescents aged 14 to 15 years old found that social intelligence contributed significantly towards popularity. Social intelligence contributed to 28% of the variance in sociometric popularity and 31% of the variance in perceived popularity. Another study done by DeBryun & Cillessen (2006) on 365 females on the first year of their secondary school also found that cognitive intelligence played a significant role in influencing popularity. Academic achievement was the major factor in which one was perceived as popular and also liked by others. This could have been due to a good image set through good academic achievement and awards received for a job well done, thereby gaining both sociometric and perceived popularity. It could have also been due to the fact that with cognitive intelligence, one is able to help others academically, thereby establishing popularity. From the results of the studies, it is proven that intelligence plays an important role in influencing popularity as people tend to become famous due to their achievements, and the also become popular due to their good interpersonal skills.
Physical attractiveness is also one of the factors that influence popularity, especially among adolescence. This is because an individual who is physically attractive is often attributed and perceived to have more positive qualities and to behave prosocially as compared to an individual who is physically unattractive (Kaplan, 2004). People who are physically attractive were also associated with more positive personalities as compared to those who are physically unattractive (Zakin, 1983). An example in point: when one gets lots, one tends to approach a stranger that is cheerful and happy to ask for directions instead of an individual who is grumpy and haggard as one is afraid that the latter might scold them or rob them instead. A study done by Dion (1973) among preschoolers aged 3 to 6 Â½ years with regards to facial attractiveness (based on adult standards on what is attractive and unattractive) found that children as young as 3 years old found were able to reliably discriminated between attractive and unattractive facial expressions. They were also able to demonstrate a significant preference for attractive children as potential friends as compared to unattractive children. From the study, it can be inferred that physical attractiveness does play a role in popularity since we have been hardwired since young that people who are physically attractive are more sociable. Not only that, having positive features contributes to the positive affect, which in turns enhances the impact of negative behaviours (Dijkstra, Lindenberg, Verhulst, Ormel, & Veenstra, 2009). Hence, when a physically attractive individual indulges in a negative behaviour such as stealing, their action is not viewed as negatively as a person who is physically unattractive and steals. This could be due to attribution bias: positivity effect (Baron, Branscombe, & Bryne, 2009). Because we like someone, we tend to attribute their negative behaviour to the situation instead of their disposition.
Besides, popularity can also be influenced by negative factors. For example, if you are the naughtiest person in school or you frequently get called by the principal for disciplinary reasons, you will probably be popular too, but for the wrong reasons. This popularity can come in the form of sociometric popularity as well as perceived popularity. However, it is usually in the form of perceived popularity. Since sociometric popularity is the degree of acceptance by others, delinquents and truants rarely gain sociometric popularity due to moral reasons. They do however gain sociometric popularity from their group of peers. This is because, in a group, one is subjected to biases such as prejudice, group thinking, and conformity. Aggression is the intentional hurting of others that do not want to be hurt (Baron, et al., 2009). Though aggression is often related to adjustment, behavioural, and social difficulties, research has found that moderate aggression is related positively to perceived popularity. A study done by Rose and Swenson (2009) on 439 youths (195 seventh graders; 244 ninth graders) of 84% European American population found that relational aggression (e.g. spreading rumours, ignoring, excluding, etc.) exhibited by aggressors due to internalised reasons such as depression and anxiety buffered the perceived popularity of others towards them. However, perceived popularity of others was not buffered in adolescents who exert overt physical and verbal aggression for internalised reasons. This could have been due to the reason that relational aggressors have higher social dominance in their groups. Also, unlike overt physical and verbal aggressors, relational aggressors are able to efficiently relational aggress and escape the notice of adults as therefore covering up their negative behaviours. A limitation of this study is that it was done among the American population. Thus, it cannot be generalised to the Asian population.
Friends can be chosen by selection, and they are chosen partly on the basis of homogamy. One usually chooses someone like oneself: have similar personalities, interests, beliefs, age, and also socio-economic status (Rice, 1990). This is simply because by having similar characteristics, one forms a clique and are able to get along and spend more time together. For example, two adolescents who share the same interest in playing computer games will enjoy playing or talking about computer games together. According to Kaplan (2004), teenagers are more drawn towards friends who share similar attitudes and interests as them as these friends are able to reinforce their behaviours. An example in point: speaking with a particular slang or even liking for a particular art such as anime. The reinforcement of their behaviour serves as a form of socialisation. A study conducted by Selfhout, Denissen, Branje, & Meeus (2009) on 489 undergraduates with a mean age of 18.9 with regards to perceived similarity, actual similarity, and peer-rated similarity in personality with friendship intensity found that peer-related similarity and perceived similarity tended to breed more friendship intensity for just-acquainted individuals. From this, the importance of personality similarity in friendship is justified as one tends to have a better relationship with those who have similar personalities as them. This is also the same for romantic relationships. People tend to get attracted to those who have the same personality as them. A meta-analysis conduct on 35, 747 participants of 460 effect sizes found a strong significant relationship between interpersonal attraction and both actual and perceived similarity (Montoya, Horton, & Kirchner, 2008). This implies that similar personality is important in both peer selection and romantic partner selection. This is probably due to the fact that with similar personalities, there is more agreeableness, therefore enhancing the relationship are there as fewer arguments.
In contrast, friends can also be chosen due to socialisation. Adolescents conform or adopt the attitudes and behaviours of others in order to remain in a friendship or a group (Kaplan, 2004). For example: one might dislike a particular boy band just because their peers dislike that band too; this behaviour is reinforced by their group who acts in the same way thereby motivating them to act in the similar manner. According to Santrock (2008), in adolescence, peer conformity is greater than parent conformity. However, parents still has more impact on certain situations. The development of decision-making styles and independence from peer and parental influence is seen to only develop in the eleventh and twelfth grade. Adolescence tended to conform because they want to avoid the negative emotions that evoke from not conforming. These negative emotions involve abandonment, isolation, and separation from their significant others (their group) (Lashbrook, 2000). According to Rice (1990), conformity is also affected by socio-economic status. Adolescents who were higher in socio-economic status tended to conform more than those from low socio-economic status families. This is because they tended to be more materialistic. Thus, they were more motivated to conform because they focused more on the extrinsic values of things such as achieving a high status within a group instead of the intrinsic values such as doing the right thing. That being said, it is obvious that relationships with peers can influence one negatively or positively. Because of this, parental guidance is very important to ensure that the children and youths of today grow up into upright adults. Parents should inculcate and instil moral values in the young so that the latter will not be susceptible to negative peer influences.
In conclusion, peer status, size of groups and the people that from these groups, and the purpose for investing in a relationship are the main changes in relationship in middle childhood and adolescence. Popularity can be influenced by both positive and negative reasons such as intelligence, physical attractiveness, and aggression. Choice of friends is mainly based on two aspects: selection or socialisation. It is important to note that relationships in middle childhood and adolescence can differ between cultures due to different cultural norms and expectations. Future studies should focus on the significance of moral and religious values in resisting negative peer influences and the other factors that influences conformity.
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