It’s no secret that we get by with a little help from our friends: friendships are vital to our everyday lives. We often lean on our friends in times when we need an extra hand, a shoulder to cry on, or just someone to listen to us unleash our inner thoughts. As adults, we have a pretty solid understanding of what friendship is, how friendships develop, and the importance they have in our lives. But when exactly does this conceptualization begin? When do children begin to develop friendships, and what do these early companionships look like? What do young children pay attention to when deciding who they want to be friends with?
It is likely that you can name off key qualities that you look for in a friend pretty easily. A study at the University of Kansas found six qualities that adults value in their friendships: enjoyment of time spent together, equal give-and-take of support and understanding, voluntary helping, similarities in attitudes and activities, intimate self-disclosure, and agency. But what about children? Do they attribute the same value to these qualities? Research shows that children actually view similar factors as being central to friendship! During the preschool years, the three central factors that children consider in their understanding of friendship are proximity, similarity, and prosocial interactions.
Imagine you live in an apartment complex. You have neighbours in the units above and below you, and in the unit next to you. Who do you think you are most likely to become friends with: the woman in the unit above you, the student in the unit below you, or the couple next door? If you said the couple next door, then you answered the question based on proximity.
Proximity involves spending time in a close physical range to another individual. Sensitivity to proximity as a factor in friendships develops pretty early, as studies have shown that even 3-5-years-olds expect that the amount of time spent with another person is related to their friendship status, with more time spent together indicating better friendship. Researchers at the University of California and University of Chicago presented scenarios involving three characters to children, and asked them which two characters were more likely to be friends. Children in this study assumed the characters who spent a lot of time together, liked to play together, and who sat next to each other in class, were more likely to be friends.
Not only do children consider proximity as a factor in developing friendships, but in their own friendships, children also consider the quality of the time spent in proximity with someone. A study at the University of Illinois investigated this by collecting and analyzing audio recordings of 3-9-year-olds during several play sessions. They found that the children who engaged in clear communication (e.g., expressing which toy they wanted to use) and successfully managed conflicts during their interactions (e.g., settling disagreements) were the ones who became friends. In sum, preschool-aged children understand that the amount of time two people spend together is a cue to their friendship status and, in their own relationships, they are also affected by the quality of the time spent with others.
Another key factor in early friendship understanding is similarity. Research shows that from a very young age, we selectively choose social partners who are similar to us. For example, 1-year-olds prefer puppets who have the same food preferences as them, and 3-year-olds prefer individuals who share similar preferences and look like them. By the time children are of preschool-age, they begin to make inferences about others’ friendships based on their similarities. For example, they assume that two people of the same gender or race are likely to be friends, and they begin to view similarities in skills or experiences as cues to friendship, such as a passion for playing the piano or a similar travel experience to the zoo!
However, preschoolers also recognize that there are limits to the types of similarities that signal friendship. For example, children understand that arbitrary similarities, like sharing a birthday, are not relevant cues to friendship.
We know that children see factors like proximity and similarity as important factors for developing friendships and that the quality of interactions matters as well. What kinds of behaviours do children expect friends to engage in? This brings us to the third key factor in children’s understanding of friendships: prosocial interactions.
Prosocial interactions include a wide range of positive behaviours, such as helping, sharing, and engaging in intimate self-disclosure. Many studies have found that preschoolers will share, help, support, and comfort their friends, and that they expect their friends to do the same for them. In brief, children recognize that support is a crucial component of a friendship. Not only do they recognize the importance of prosocial behaviour in their own friendships, but children also recognize this factor in others’ friendships as well. One study from Harvard University found that 4-year-olds infer friendship between individuals who help each other complete a task. Another study from the University of California and University of Chicago found that 3-6-year-olds infer friendship between two individuals if one provides help to the other. In short, preschoolers expect people to be friends with those who have helped them!
To summarize, our understanding of friendship evolves at a young age. Starting during the preschool years, we actively seek individuals who are near us, who help and share with us, and who share similar skills and experiences with us to be friends with, and our use of these factors become deeper and more complex as we age. Do you think these factors have played a role in your little one’s friendships?
Interested in the original research? Check out the cited articles below:
Afshordi, N. (2019). Children’s Inferences About Friendship and Shared Preferences Based on Reported Information. Child Development, 90.(3), 719-717. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.13237
Afshordi, N., & Liberman, Z. (2021). Keeping friends in mind: Development of friendship concepts in early childhood. Social Development, 30.(2), 331-342. https://doi.org/10.1111/sode.12493