An important and sometimes neglected part of achieving at school is making friends. The big measure of success at school for parents and teachers are grades, but children think different. To them you’re nobody without friends, and it doesn’t matter how sweet your report card looks. When you think about it, kids are right. Not that it’s important to have a ton of friends, but it is important to understand and appreciate the perspective of people just like ourselves. Peers are less critical and directive, making children feel freer to try out new roles, ideas and behaviors.
Children learn valuable lessons about themselves and others, in a way parents could never do. For instance, you see Gerald bullying himself into a game. Your first instinct is to stop him, but you have a second thought. Your interference would rob Gerald of a chance to see first-hand how other children respond to his barging in on their game. It’s true, Gerald isn’t going to make any friends this time, but he’ll know he has to change his style the next time around.
Peer groups emerge in middle childhood (6 to 10 years-of-age). Typically these groups are all-girl or all-boy. This same-sex preference is apparent even amongst 1 to 2 year-olds. Being part of a peer group is important to children for these reasons: gives them a place to go or something to do, defines a sense of belonging, sets out the norm to guide their behavior, and develops a structure from which they can cooperate to achieve shared goals. Peers also give children a yardstick for making social comparisons. Tyler knows he’s the worst speller in the class because he’s always the first to sit down in a spelling B. On the other hand, Tyler also knows he’s the best soccer player because everyone wants him on their team.
Peers are powerful motivators for children. Their approval often dictates what children do, say, and sometimes think. For instance, does this sound familiar? You’ve been wanting Jenny to take swimming lessons for months. So far she’s not willing to miss her second most favorite television show. Then one day Jenny comes home from school in a panic–Ruth, her best friend is taking swimming lessons and Jenny wants to sign up NOW.
Playing with younger children also can be character building. Younger peers foster the development of sympathy and compassion, caregiving, assertiveness, and leadership skills. The younger kids learn how to ask for help and how to give in gracefully to the wishes and directions of older, more powerful peers. Nurturing and prosocial behaviors happen more often in mixed-age groups, while casually sociable acts such as conversation and cooperative play, as well as antisocial acts come up more often amongst age mates.
In general kids can be divided into three groups: accepted, neglected, rejected. It goes without saying, every kid wants to be accepted–but, not every kid is. Being rejected is the worst. Youngsters rejected by their peers during grade school are more likely to drop out of school, become involved in delinquent or criminal activities and display serious psychological problems in later years. Neglected children don’t feel as lonely, and are more likely to eventually become accepted or even popular when they enter a new class.
Think back to when you were a kid. Who were the kids everyone liked? Good-looking kids had it made. I don’t remember too many cute kids who weren’t well-liked. Making friends seemed easy for them, whereas ugly kids often had to struggle at making friends. A well-proportioned also made a difference. Boys with athletic builds who matured earlier seemed to catch girl’s eyes faster than skinny or round ones. Groovy clothes also helped. Kids laugh at you when you’re wearing funny or out-of-date clothes. Popular children also have nice personalities. They are reasonably calm, outgoing, cooperative, and supportive playmates who have good social problem-solving skills.
Later-born children are more popular than first-borns–they learn from their older siblings mistakes. Names also have an impact: children with attractive names tend to be more popular and viewed as more competent by their teachers. Those with weird names have to learn how to take a joke–on them. Although nowadays kids don’t bother making fun of names–every second kid has a funny name. For example, my son Nathan has eight children in his art class. Axel, Bronte, Conner, Mendel, and Thane are five of them.
Well-liked children know how to join in to group activities. They watch and try to figure out what’s going on, and then comment pleasantly and constructively on the activity as they join in. Rejected children on the other hand are pushy and self-serving. They often criticize or disrupt group activities and may even threaten to hurt the members if they’re not allowed to play. Neglected children behave differently again. They tend to hover around the edges of the group, not saying much and turning away from other children’s bids to help them. Neglected children are less talkative and appear shy or inhibited. Rejected children are typically overly active and disruptive, uncooperative, short-tempered, and prone to bullying or other aggressive tactics to get their own way. Many of these children pick up their abrasive attributes from their parents. Typically rejected children come from highly punitive and coercive home environments. Refer to the following box for more on how parents influence their children’s sociability.