What Friends Teach Children

When I was a child, my sister and I used to get together with the neighbor kids and create shows. There would be numerous and varied acts, multiple costume changes, and a shifting cast. We created tickets and offered refreshments for our parent audience members. Preparing the show involved inspiration, arguments, and occasional tears, and the performance invariably had calamities like falling curtains and wandering toddlers, but somehow the show went on, and we all enjoyed the final bows.

For most adults, some of our fondest memories of childhood involve the times we spent playing with friends. In some sense, friendship is what childhood is all about. Friends are not only a source of fun; they also help children grow in meaningful ways.

Here are some of the things that children can gain through friendships:

1) Self-Esteem. Friends help children begin to discover who they are outside the family. Friendships are based on common interests, so by selecting friends, children declare something about who they are: “My friends and I play baseball” or “We all like the Harry Potter books!” When children have a friend who likes them, it can also help them to see themselves as likeable.

2) Coping. A friend is an ally. Having a friend means it’s easier to cope with disappointments. Children who have at least one reciprocal friend are less likely to become depressed.

3) Problem Solving. Friendships give children lots of opportunities to work out disagreements. This gives kids a chance to practice skills of persuasion, negotiation, compromise, acceptance, and forgiveness. There’s even some evidence that, over time, having a close friend is linked to improvements in knowledge of effective problem-solving strategies. A study by Gary Glick and Amanda Rose at the University of Missouri found that from fall to spring of one school year, children with high quality friendships increased how much they said they would use helping strategies such as talking over a problem with a friend and decreased how much they said they’d use disengaged strategies such as distraction or pretending the problem didn’t exist.

4) Empathy. Probably the most important benefit of friendship is that it encourages children to move beyond self-interest. Caring about a friend, or even just wanting to play with that friend can help children reign in selfish impulses and encourage caring responses. If a friend isn’t having fun, she’ll take her ball and go home! So, to maintain a friendship, children need to learn to recognize and respond positively to their friend’s feelings.

Friendships are fun and painful, exciting and frustrating, challenging, enjoyable, and unpredictable—kind of like life. Whether children are putting on a show, negotiating where base is during a game of tag, or deciding which videogame to play together, they are developing the skills they will use through out their lives. What stands out in your memories of playing with friends as a child?


For further reading:

Buhrmester, D., & Furman, W. D. (1986). The changing functions of friends in childhood: A neo-Sullivan perspective. In V. Derlega & B. Winstead (Eds.), Friendship and social interaction (pp. 41–62). New York, NY: Springer-Verlag.

© Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD.