Future Directions

In this chapter we have examined how the study of peer relations, what we have chosen to study, and, to some extent, what we have concluded as we studied children forming relations with peers, has been influenced by the sociocultural influences of the historical period of the research as well as the theoretical lens through which we view peers. We suspect that these joint forces will continue to influence the study of the processes by which children construct and maintain their relationships with peers. One emerging sociocultural influence on research on peer relations is the changing demographics in both urban and increasingly rural areas of the United States. There is a large influx of families from societies that generally are considered more collectivist in their values than traditional U.S. families. Within collectivist societies, there is a greater emphasis placed on the individual within the group than on the individual self. These collectivist values are not dissimilar to the values of the visionaries that opened child care centers to infants and toddlers in the early 1970s. Those involved in the intersection of the women's movement and child care in the 1970s also dreamed of a society that valued the collective and helped children to be prosocial, altruistic members of a group.

These values on creating a group based on cooperation are somewhat different than the premise expressed in traditional early childhood education where the development of the individual child is paramount. It also differs from another prevailing force that emphasizes academics rather than social relationships in preschool. As more children and families from subcultures based on collectivist ideas enter child care settings, there may be renewed tension between constructing groups of children that support and help one another while simultaneously helping each child within the group to reach their individual potential. This tension emerges in the Maccoby and Lewis review (2003) and may influence the next set of studies of peer relations.

Attachment theory, once expanded beyond the study of early parent-child relationships, also is likely to continue be a powerful influence on the study of peer relationships. This work has suggested that attachments with alternative caregivers are influential to peer relations. Furthermore, descriptive studies have established that relationships between young children are stable affective bonds. These findings may lead researchers to move beyond the description of friendships towards the study of internal representations of friendships. The question of what internal representations are derived from early peer affective relationships and how these representations shape children's working models of relationships is far from answered. In this context, it is important that the earliest friendships appear to be based on some "chemistry" that leads toddlers to prefer each other rather than on matches between children of similar gender and ethnicity. As classrooms become filled with children who come from very different cultural communities, the study of peer relations will need to address the question of whether providing children with opportunities to form important relationships with persons unlike themselves at young ages will predict respectful relationships with others unlike themselves as older children and adults.

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