The Functions of Friendships Between Very Young Children

Can peers provide other child experiences of social support, trust, and intimacy? Do children who grew up together sharing the common resources of the child care center have a different kind of social interaction than acquaintances? Do cross-sex peers and cross-ethnic peers who became friends in the context of child care form nontraditional relationships? Each of these questions describes a potential function of friendship: experiences of social support, trust, and intimacy; a context for mastering social interaction; and a context for engaging with children who are unlike the self. The first of these functions has received the most research attention; research on the third function is just emerging.

Friendships Provide Experiences of Social Support, Trust, and Intimacy

We expect that older children or adolescents derive feelings of social support, trust, and intimacy from their relationships with friends (Howes, 1996). It is difficult to directly apply these constructs to the friendships of very young children. There are, however, several pieces of evidence that support the idea that children who form friendships as preverbal children in child care do experience social support, trust, and intimacy within these relationships. The children who were used for the early case studies of friendship (Howes, 1981) are now young adults. Informal conversations with these children suggest that their toddler friend partner, although no longer a "best friend" remains a person of importance in their lives. And, as previously discussed, toddler friend pairs tend to remain stable friends. This suggests that toddler friendships function to provide affective support, rather than functioning merely as a context for play, when the child's life history allows for continuity of those friendships.

If toddler-age friend pairs are serving as sources of social support, we would expect them to respond to the distress of their friend. In one study of toddler-age children, we identified friends according to the behaviors identified above. We then used event coding to describe distress incidences in the classroom. The identity of the crier, the context of the distress, and the identity and behaviors of adults and peers who responded to the child were recorded. We found that children were most likely to respond to another child's crying if that child was a friend (Howes & Farver, 1987b).

Finally, we suggest that, once children become experts at social pretend play, friends use the context of play to explore issues of trust and intimacy (Howes, with Unger et al., 1992). In an exploratory study of these issues, we compared ratings of self-disclosure in the play of 4-year-old children who were asked to engage in pretend play with a particular partner (Howes, with Unger et al., 1992). One group of children had been in a longitudinal study, had been identified as friends as toddlers, and had kept these friendships. A second group of children were paired with short-term friends, developed within the prior 6 months. In the third group, children were paired with a child who was not an identified friend. Self-disclosure ratings were higher in the long-term friend group than in either the short-term or the nonfriend groups.

Child Care Friendships As a Way to Learn How to Engage With Peers

In this chapter and in general, the construction of social interaction has been treated as semi-independent of the construction of friendships (Howes, 1988b). The data suggest that more socially skilled children tend to have friends and children who have friends tend to be more socially skilled. In particular, children who engage in more complex play have less difficulty than less skilled children in entering play groups (Howes, 1988b). One reason that these socially skilled children can easily enter play groups is that they are likely to be friends with children within the play group.

Friendships appear to be a particularly important context for the construction of complex peer interactions during early developmental periods. In a year-long longitudinal study, infants and toddlers made the greatest increases in complexity of social play when they were engaged with stable friends, as opposed to acquaintances or playmates (Howes, 1983). Social pretend play, which involves the communication of symbolic meaning, also appears first within friendship dyads and then within playmate dyads (Howes, 1985b; Howes, with Unger et al., 1992). Likewise, preschoolers who had been friends for 3 years were better able to use communicative behaviors to extend and to clarify pretend play than preschoolers who had been friends for 6 months or less (Howes , Droege, & Matheson, 1994). Children who are friends do not have to simultaneously devise the game structure and integrate or communicate pretend meanings. Instead, they integrate new pretend meanings into well-developed and routine-like games. In a large landmark study within Head Start classrooms Vaughn and colleagues found similar relations between friendships formation and social competence (Vaughn et al., 2000; Vaughn, Colvin, Azria, Caya, & Krzysik, 2001)

The mastery of social skills within friendships is not limited to typical children. Friendships appear to facilitate conflict resolution and conflict avoidance in children enrolled in an intervention program for emotionally disturbed children (Howes, 1985a). Toddler-age friends were more likely than acquaintances to avoid conflict. Similarly, preschool friends were less likely than acquaintances to misinterpret prosocial bids and more likely to avoid conflict by decreasing their agonistic bids.

Friendships As a Context to Engage With Children Who Are Unlike the Self

To the extent that children of different genders and ethnic backgrounds have different social styles, friendships appear to give children access to these diverse social styles. As discussed, toddler-age children do not select their friends on the basis of gender (Howes, 1988c; Howes & Phillipsen, 1992). Instead, toddlers form and maintain cross-gender friendships into preschool. Likewise, in a study of young children in an ethnically diverse school, we found that children were able to form and maintain cross-ethnic friendships (Howes & Wu, 1990). As we discussed in the introduction, whether peer groups are diverse or homogeneous depends on the cultural context of the peer group. As child care institutions are segregated by income of parents, the resulting peer groups do not cross social class and in many instances race lines, and thus children loose opportunities to form friendships with children unlike themselves. As well, as pointed out in a review by Maccoby and Lewis, the cooperative versus competitive tone set in the child care arrangement may facilitate or inhibit social interaction and friendships among similar or dissimilar children (Maccoby & Lewis, 2003).

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