Children spend much of their time with similar-age peers. Meaningful interactions between peers begin in infancy—infants direct and respond to each other's smiles and vocalizations. As preschoolers age, their interactions with peers become increasingly complex, progressing from solitary play to onlooking (child watches others but does not join), parallel play (child plays beside but not with others), associative play (child plays with others), and cooperative play (child plays with others using coordinated roles). As children age they engage in more of the latter forms of play, though the former types of play are not entirely abandoned. Moreover, the topics of play change during childhood, from constructive play (e.g., block building) to dramatic play to games with formal rules.
This increased complexity of play is paralleled by increased complexity of social behavior. This, as well as the increased time spent with peers, has led psychologists to focus much of their attention on the peer relations of children and adolescents. Topics of study include children's acceptance or rejection by the larger peer group, friendships, and aggressive and prosocial behaviors toward others. Researchers have also examined gender differences in each of these aspects of development.
The terms ''popularity'' and ''rejection'' are used to describe the degree to which children are liked or disliked by their peers. Certain types of behavior are consistently related to group acceptance throughout childhood. Popular children, who are liked by many of their peers and disliked by few, tend to be sociable, often do well in school, and are generally not aggressive. Rejected children, on the other hand, who are disliked by many of their peers and liked by few, are often aggressive or withdrawn, have poor social skills, and do not do well in school. Despite these generalizations about popular and rejected children, however, these groups are heterogeneous (i.e., children in these groups vary in their characteristics and/or behaviors). Some children are rejected because their aggressive, disruptive behavior is annoying to peers, while other children are rejected because they are timid and socially anxious. Children may be popular by behaving prosocially, being academically competent, and being leaders, while other popular children are aggressive or delinquent, but are seen as ''cool'' by their peers. Importantly, behaviors that are valued or devalued by peers are dependent upon group norms, which are influenced by surrounding societal and cultural values.
Whereas friendships of younger children center around concrete reciprocities (e.g., sharing toys) and those of older children emphasize self-disclosure and loyalty, friendships at all ages are based on mutual liking, reciprocity of positive behavior, and seeking the other's presence. Both having friends and the quali ties of friendships are predictors of later development. For instance, having friends during childhood predicts having romantic relationships in adolescence and feelings of self-worth in adulthood, having supportive friendships predicts academic achievement during school transitions, and having protective friends can reduce peer victimization. It must be remembered that friendships are defined by two members, and the characteristics that make a child a desirable friend to one peer may not make that child desirable to another. Children tend to have friends who are similar to them in demographic characteristics (e.g., age, race, gender), academic abilities (e.g., intelligence, school achievement), and social behavior (e.g., aggression, attachment styles). Not only do children tend to form friendships with those who are similar, but friends also tend to influence each other such that they become more similar over time.
The frequency of aggressive behavior remains fairly constant during childhood, but physical forms of aggression (such as hitting and pushing) displayed in younger children tend to be replaced with verbal aggression (such as teasing and threatening) among older children. Highly aggressive children are often rejected by their peers, and aggressive behavior is often associated with academic failure. Despite often being rejected by the larger peer group, however, aggressive children typically have as many friends as nonaggressive peers, most commonly with other aggressive children. These deviant friends reinforce the child's aggression, and, when combined with academic failure and the loss of socialization from mainstream peers, may lead to later delinquency and antisocial behavior. The experience of being the victim of peer aggression can lead to negative out-comes—both personal (e.g., depression, anxiety, low self-esteem) and interpersonal (e.g., rejection, few friends)—which in turn further perpetuate peer abuse. These consequences are not limited to the period during which the child is victimized; chronic victimization can lead to low self-esteem and depression that persists into adulthood.
The frequency of prosocial behavior, behavior meant to assist others, increases during childhood, then remains relatively constant during adolescence. Nancy Eisenberg and Richard Fabes suggested that acts of prosocial behavior are based upon the development of prosocial moral reasoning, which involves increasing concern for others and ability to understand their suffering. Across childhood, prosocial behavior is related to popularity, the presence of friendships, and high quality friendships.
It is important to keep in mind that differences exist between boys and girls. Boys tend to play differently and in larger groups than girls. Boys' friend
ships are marked by common activities whereas girls' are marked by intimacy. Boys are more aggressive than girls, and girls tend to use aggression that is more social (e.g., excluding someone from a group) than physical in nature. There is less evidence, however, that the causes and consequences of these social behaviors differ for boys and girls. For example, although aggression is more common in boys, the same cognitions that motivate aggressive behavior appear to operate for both genders, and behaving aggressively often leads to peer rejection for both boys and girls. Rather than focusing on the differences in boys' and girls' behavior in general, Eleanor Maccoby suggested that it may be more important to focus on how boys and girls interact among themselves and with each other. During childhood, interactions occur almost exclusively with same-sex peers when children are given a choice (e.g., on playgrounds). When required to interact, the power-assertive behavior typical in boys' groups results in boys dominating the interactions (e.g., playing with the more desirable toys). Girls in these interactions, who are accustomed to the supportive style typical in girls' groups, find this style aversive and the boys unresponsive to change. When possible, the girls will discontinue interaction or seek proximity to an adult whose presence can reduce the boys' dominating style.
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