CHILDREN WITHOUT FRIENDS, PART 2:
THE REASONS FOR PEER REJECTION
|Gladys A. Williams, M.P.H.
Doctoral Student, Clinical Psychology
Department of Psychology
University of Illinois - Urbana
Steven R. Asher, Ph.D.
Bureau of Educational Research
University of Illinois - Urbana
When children are deciding whether to be friends with someone, they seem to ask themselves certain "core questions."
- Is this child fun to be with?
- Is this child trustworthy?
- Do we influence each other in ways I like?
- Does this child help me achieve my goals?
- Does this child make me feel good about myself?
- Is this child similar to me?
Of course, children rarely think about these questions consciously or in these exact words. But research indicates that the answers to these questions affect whether children will accept or reject a child.
The answers to these six core questions affect not only children's friendships, but also other types of relationships such as parent-child relationships, friendships among adults, and marital relationships.
For children's friendships, some questions are more important at certain ages. For example, preschool and early grade-school children seem to care more about the first question. They are especially likely to value friends who are fun to play with. In contrast, adolescents often stress characteristics relevant to trustworthiness, such as loyalty and keeping secrets.
How do children decide that someone else is fun to be with or is trustworthy? An important basis for this decision is the other child's behavior. Table 1 lists characteristics of children that tend to be associated with acceptance and rejection by the peer group. Each characteristic is listed next to the relevant core question. Notice that some behaviors are relevant to more than one issue. For example, a cooperative child is perceived as fun, as influencing others in positive ways, and as helping others reach desired goals. An aggressive child is often viewed as less fun to be with, as less trustworthy, and as exerting influence in coercive ways.
Just because a child displays a certain negative characteristic does not necessarily mean that the child will be rejected. A child's relationship with peers is based on the entire pattern of his or her behavior. Children's positive behaviors will help to offset some of their less desirable behaviors. For example, a child who is sometimes quite bossy may be accepted by other children if the child also has a good sense of humor, is good at sports, and is sometimes quite helpful or kind. In contrast, another bossy child who shows few positive behaviors may be rejected.
As Table 1 suggests, there are many possible routes to becoming rejected by peers. Different children may be disliked for very different reasons. Some children seem to antagonize others by being aggressive, while others annoy their peers by interrupting a lot. Still others are seen as withdrawn and nonresponsive, or as incompetent at valued peer activities like sports or games.
Although rejected children differ in many ways, there does seem to be something they have in common: A large proportion of rejected children are lacking in positive interaction skills, such as being cooperative, helpful, or considerate toward others. This suggests that it should be possible to help these children by teaching them positive ways to interact with others. We will discuss this possibility in the next issue. In preparation for this discussion, we suggest that you observe two or three children in your group who seem to lack friends. See if you can specify which of the skills in Table 1 they lack and which strengths they have. Consider discussing your observations with other staff. This information may help you identify the specific areas each child needs to work on. In the next issue we will discuss ways to improve children's social skills.
Table 1: CHARACTERISTICS ASSOCIATED WITH PEER ACCEPTANCE AND PEER REJECTION, GROUPED ACCORDING TO SIX CORE QUESTIONS
- sense of humor
- participatory/readily involved
- low cognitive skills
- betrays confidences
- likes me
- dislikes me
- common values and interests
- respect for peer conventions
- same gender, race, age
- different values and interests
- nonconformity to peer conventions
- superior manner
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