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Ideas

How kids make friends — and why it matters

New research from psychologists unlocks the mysterious, complicated, strangely adult way that children connect.

Ward Jenkins for The Boston Globe

This week, the children of Boston will arrive at school for the first time since summer vacation, bracing themselves for a monumental decision: where to sit during lunch. As they stand in the cafeteria, clutching their trays and trying not to look too concerned, they will wonder who their friends will be this year, and what they’ll need to do to find them in the crowd.

Each September, these moments unfold across America, as the nation’s young people undertake the exciting, stressful process of picking allies and identifying kindred spirits. It’s a process we remember vividly into adulthood, in part because the companions we choose as children—and those who choose us—often end up having a permanent impact on our lives. But looking back, most of us are faced with an enigma when we ask why exactly we ended up with the friends we did.

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What do kids look for in a friend? What draws some children together, while driving others apart? Over the past several decades—and especially recently, as concerns about bullying have roiled the country—these questions have attracted increasing attention from developmental psychologists. By sitting in on classrooms and summer camps, recording playground conversations with microphones, and even monitoring children’s text messages, researchers are beginning to arrive at intriguing conclusions about what it takes for children to become—and perhaps more importantly, remain—friends.

One of the most significant findings to come out of this growing field is that making friends isn’t the same as being popular: The ability to initiate and maintain close relationships is different from simply being liked and accepted by the group. To make friends, it turns out, children need to be able to carry out sophisticated social maneuvers, screening potential pals for certain positive qualities and making careful assessments about how much common ground they share. And in order to be a good friend—the kind that inspires loyalty and dedication—even a very young child must be not only fun to spend time with, but capable of being emotionally mature in ways that can be difficult even for grown-ups.

“Even if, as a parent, you might look at your children’s friendships and think, you know, ‘Oh, they just play together, how hard could that be?’ it is in fact hard work. They’re working very hard,” said Jeffrey Parker, an associate professor at the University of Alabama who specializes in childhood friendship. “There are lots of [kids] who are amusing, but it’s not the same as being able to work really well with someone.”

In the long run, researchers hope to understand “friendship skills” well enough that kids could learn them and parents could help develop them deliberately. For now, driven by findings that point to the surprising demands of childhood friendship, they’ve begun to assemble the first clear portrait of the mysterious forces churning beneath the surface when that lunch tray hits the table.

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When you’re little, most people enter your orbit through circumstances outside your control. Your parents, your baby-sitter, your siblings—all are chosen for you. Friendships, in contrast, are almost entirely voluntary: Even if you’re encouraged to play with certain kids, no one can really force you to be buddies with them. Maybe this is why the friends we make when we’re very young later occupy such a special place in our memory: They represent some of our first meaningful choices as autonomous beings.

Researchers noticed there were kids who were well-liked but did not have any close friends, as well as kids who were not well-liked who did.

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The importance of friendship in child development was first explored more than half a century ago by the American psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan, who in an influential 1953 book argued for the importance of “chumships” in activating children’s sense of empathy. “If you will look very closely at one of your children when he finally finds a chum—somewhere between 8-and-a-half and ten,” Sullivan wrote, “you will discover...that your child [is beginning] to develop a real sensitivity to what matters to another person.”

This now sounds charmingly innocent, considering that in recent years, most of the ink and research devoted to childhood relationships have focused on what happens when they go horribly wrong, and why certain kids bully others into misery. Researchers have conducted fascinating if disconcerting studies about the cruelty of which kids are capable. In one study on rejection, for instance, Duke University psychologist Steven Asher used microphones to record the chatter of 35 children over the course of a school year, and cataloged “32 different types of rejection,” many of them acutely hurtful and disturbingly creative.

A pivotal breakthrough in understanding friendship came out of rejection research conducted in 1977, when Asher and Sherri Oden, a colleague at the time, were looking into the mechanics of social acceptance in schools. For the study, the researchers asked third- and fourth-graders to rate how much they liked each of their classmates, and then, separately, asked them to list their three best friends. Cross-referencing the results, they noticed there were kids who were well-liked but did not have any close friends, as well as kids who were not well-liked that did. Later, Asher tested a number of so-called interventions aimed at teaching kids social skills to improve their status. In reviewing the results, he noticed something strange. Even though many of the interventions succeeded at helping rejected children become more accepted, they had no effect whatsoever on their ability to make close friends.

“The big mystery in the field became, ‘OK, so we’re pretty successful at making kids better accepted. But what about friendship?’” Asher said. “Is there anything special about friendship as a relationship that calls on skills that are different from what you need to just be better liked?”

It turned out there are. One example is knowing how to initiate interactions—a skill that might help a child become well liked, but is essential to making friends. “It may be as simple as saying, ‘Hey, do you want to get together on the playground?’” said Asher. He added: “Kids don’t go out for coffee, but they go for bike rides, they go to each other’s houses, they talk on the phone.”

Even before taking initiative, of course, a child is faced with another decision: with whom does he or she want to go on a bike ride? Choosing prospective friends is not simple, and according to research by Asher and Jeffrey Parker, kids go through a detailed, if subconscious, mental checklist when doing so. At the top of the list is a relatively simple question: Is this person fun to spend time with? But from there it gets trickier, as kids try to figure out whether they like how the candidate they’re evaluating makes them feel about themselves, how trustworthy and reliable he or she is, and how much common ground they share.

Perhaps the most complex question Parker says kids ask themselves is this: How does the potential friend go about trying to convince others to do things? That may sound strange, but exerting influence and being influenced by others is a huge part of being young, whether it’s about whether to employ a “no backsies” policy in tag or about which bands are cool. According to Parker, some kids are skilled at persuading their friends to pursue an idea without being pushy or annoying, while others are ham-fisted at it, and tend to resort to coercion and aggression—such as one 14-year-old boy Parker observed in a recent laboratory study, who reacted to being separated from a friend by desperately dragging the other boy’s chair back across the room.

Once two kids decide they like each other, what determines whether their friendship is happy and long-lasting? That’s the subject of recent research by Julie MacEvoy, an assistant professor at Boston College who studies children’s friendships. One of MacEvoy’s most striking findings came about when she compared boys and girls, and noticed a curious paradox. Though girls seemed to put more effort into their friendships—they helped their friends more, were better at resolving conflict, and engaged in more intimate conversations—the boys were, on the whole, no less satisfied with their friendships. MacEvoy’s conclusion was that boys and girls have different expectations of friendship—and that when it comes to being happy with the way a friendship is going, those expectations are key.

Whether you’re a boy or a girl, there is always the risk of a friend disappointing those expectations: letting you down, making friends with someone else, or just not being there for you. How kids handle such disappointments, MacEvoy says, ends up dictating a lot about how well they hold onto friends over the long term. “If you’re going to participate in friendship, you’re setting yourself up to be disappointed,” MacEvoy said. Not holding a grudge is crucial to maintaining friendships, and being incapable of it causes some kids to flit around from one friend to another, successfully making friends but quickly losing them.

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It’s easy to see why the inner workings of successful childhood friendships have, in recent years, received less attention from parents and psychologists than bullying: Figuring out how to fix something that’s broken feels more urgent than understanding why something works. But when we become too focused on preventing peer relations from going wrong, friendship researchers argue, we risk losing sight of what healthy peer relations actually look like.

Catherine Bagwell remembers being horrified when, two years ago, The New York Times reported that some educators around the country had decided to battle exclusion and bullying by discouraging kids from developing close relationships with each other. The article described a summer camp in upstate New York that employed “friendship coaches,” who made it their business to make sure every child was friends with as many of the others as possible. If two kids seemed to be getting too close, they were deliberately separated. “To friendship researchers, that just seemed completely wrong,” said Bagwell, a psychologist at Colgate University who last year coauthored a comprehensive volume on childhood friendship research.

That’s because all of their work points to the vital role of true, close friendships—not just in terms of keeping children happy, but also in turning them into successful adults. In 1996, Bagwell worked on a long-term study originated by William Bukowski, one of the founders of the field, which showed that adults who had friends when they were fifth-graders were more likely to have healthy relationships with family and to have a positive outlook on their lives, and less likely to suffer from depression.

So what can parents do to help their kids make friends? While a few experts offer generic advice—Kenneth Rubin’s “The Friendship Factor” is peppered with tips like “Explain why being a generous playmate is a good idea” and “Look for good friendship possibilities”—no one has yet devised a systematic way to teach children who are bad at friendship how to get better at it. “This is probably the one thing that if I don’t get to before I conk off, I will feel really badly about,” said Asher.

Still, even if the skills necessary for friendship turn out to be unteachable, what’s already apparent is that being good at it is not all fun and games. So this fall, if your kids come home from school and tell you their favorite class is recess, remember: It might be less of a joke than you think.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail lneyfakh@globe.com.
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