We all know that friendships are an important part of learning and life. At Oaklands, adults work with friendship issues daily. But what constitutes a friendship? How does it look throughout the elementary years?

Friendships in the ages three to six years are considered to be individuals who engage in momentary physicalistic playmates. Children respond to peers 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 exclusivity of friends, 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.

Friendships of children from about six to nine years of age follow a pattern that can be described as opportunity and activity. At this age, friends usually live close to one another and are of the same gender 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 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 psychiatrists call 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.
Friendships are connections we all strive for throughout our lifetime. They are emotionally charged (positive and negative) but most of all they are a lifelong learning process. As parents, we want all friendships to be positive and successful. We also need to keep in mind that friendships that begin and end is a ‘natural’ part of growth development. We need to support the efforts, positively reinforce the friendship skill development, and encourage our children to continue to be flexible and develop skills that promote a network of friendships.

For more information go to Friendship – Friendships Throughout Childhood