When we think of children’s friendships, we usually focus on one-on-one relationships, but friendship groups add an extra dimension of fun—and complication—to children’s social worlds.
Development of children’s friendship groups
Friendship groups may begin in preschool, but they become increasingly important as children get older. Among first- and second-graders, about half are part of a group of friends (Witvliet, van Lier, Cuijpers, & Koot, 2010). By fourth grade, almost all children (97%) say they spend time with a group of kids (Bagwell, Coie, Terry, & Lochman, 2000). By seventh grade, over three-quarters of children say they mostly hang out with one or more groups of friends (Crockett, Losoff, & Peterson, 1984).
Moving in and out of friendship groups
Being able to manage group friendships seems to require more advanced social skills than an individual friendship, and it’s linked to better adjustment. In a study of first-graders, Miranda Witvliet (Witvliet et al, 2010) found that children who were members of a social group were kinder, happier, and better liked by peers than those who only had one-on-one friendships. Those with one-on-one friendships were, in turn, better adjusted than those who had no friends. Surprisingly, the children with only one-on-one friendships were more similar in well-being to the kids with no friends than to the social group members.
Levels of social involvement
If we think of social involvement as a hierarchy ranging from no friends, to individual friendships, to group friendships, children may move up of down on this hierarchy over time. Witvliet and colleagues found that, between first and second grade, roughly half of all children changed their degree of social involvement. Those who did so, mostly moved only one step up or down the scale of social involvement. For instance, among the children who started as part of a social group, 65% were still in a group a year later, while 30% moved to having just one-on-one-friendships, and 5% became friendless. Among the children who started with one-on-one-friendships, 45% continued to have one-on-one friendships, 40% joined a social group, and only 15% became isolated. The hopeful news for friendless children is that, over the course of the year, 39% gained a one-on-one friend, and 22% moved into a social group.
Finding a friendship group that’s a good fit
As parents, we can help our children find their tribe. Based on your child’s interests and personality, try to find group activities that are a good fit. Sports teams are an obvious option, but there are many other possibilities, including singing in a choir, being part of a religious community, taking a Legos robotics class, or doing volunteer work. Cousins and neighborhood friends can also be friendship group options. Kids feel a wonderful sense of belonging when they walk up to a bunch of peers and think, “Here are people like me!”
It’s important for children to choose groups that bring out the best in them. Being part of a group that frequently leads them to get into trouble isn’t a wise choice.
Joining a friendship group
It’s also important to help children know how to join a group. This is not always easy to do. A study of preschoolers found that kids trying to enter an on-going playgroup were rejected about half of the time (Corsaro, 1981). Even well-like children get rejected about one-fourth of the time (Putallaz & Gottman 1981). Your child is more likely to be able to join a group of four or more children playing, rather than a smaller group of two or three because the boundaries aren’t so tight (Putallaz & Wasserman, 1989).
Don’t tell your child to walk up to a group of kids and ask, “Can I play?” From a kid’s perspective, this is rude because it interrupts the game. The other kids have to stop what they’re doing, look at your kid, and decide if they want him to join. This also gives too much of an opportunity for mischievous kids to say, “No! You can’t play! Ha ha ha!”
Instead, your child should follow the joining sequence identified by researchers: Watch then blend (e.g., Coie, Dodge, & Kupersmidt, 1990). Studies show that kids who are successful in joining a group at play don’t draw attention to themselves. Instead, they hover around the edges of the group to understand what’s going on, then slide into the action without interrupting. For instance, your child could try doing the same thing nearby and gradually getting closer, doing something to help the game, or remarking positively about the players.
Being aggressive, bossy, or critical will get attention from peers, but it won’t help your child join the fun of a friendship group.