From kindergarten to school-age.
Preschool and Kindergarten Groups. Friendships at this age are fluid, often based on proximity and shared activities. A frustrated 4-year-old may roar, "You can't come to my birthday party!" at the playmate who has taken his toy, even though the day before they were best buddies. Living in the moment, young children generally can't hold onto earlier experiences of cooperative play. What the playmate did at that moment defines whether or not he or she is a "friend."
Kindergartners working in the block area or preschoolers playing in the house corner often have difficulty finding a role for a new member of the group. Early-childhood teachers help kids learn how to enter groups without alienating those already playing. They may help a child learn how to use non-threatening words to enter a play group or request a turn. Teachers also help those already playing learn how to welcome a new addition to the group rather than resist the new member. For example, a teacher might say to a group in the house corner, "Robin wants to play. Who could she be?"
School-Age Groups. As children move into the middle years, they begin to form more selective friendships. They like to spend time with kids who have compatible temperaments, personalities and interests. For example, kids who are focused on art will bond with others interested in art. Physically active kids may hang out together.
Being accepted by a peer group becomes increasingly important to school-age kids. During this time, boys and girls typically form separate groups as they concentrate on what it means to be a boy or girl. This can be disquieting to parents, who wonder why their kids are shunning old friends or are embarrassed to be seen with a former buddy of the opposite sex. It's during this time that group behavior becomes exaggerated. Much of kids' jockeying goes on behind the scenes, out of adult sight. It can be a challenge to get kids to talk about what they are experiencing or witnessing, but it's often worth the effort.
School-Age Girls. Some girls become weirdly cliquish and mean toward other girls. The research doesn't explain exactly why, but it may be that each girl fears being judged or shunned and therefore clings to her status in a group. A girl may worry that a disloyal member of the group will steal her best friend or reveal her secrets. She may fear that bringing in someone who is new and potentially more popular will jeopardize her own role.
School-Age Boys. Boys have different relationships with groups. It's been said that they are more accepting of peers of different ages and diverse abilities because everyone is needed and has a role. However, boys can also be ruthless toward each other. A bully often picks on someone younger or particularly sensitive because that child triggers his own fears of being vulnerable. Power and influence come into the mix as boys create teams and compete. Tough-guy behavior and name-calling can peg someone in a way that becomes hard to shake.
-Sylvia Barsotti is the Editor of Parenting Content at Highlights for Children. For more thoughts on parenting from Highlights, please visit blog.highlights.com.