How do young children pick friends?

You see a lot of interesting things as a parent. My daughter is a kindergartner and I noticed something. She was listing off her list of the “BFFs” in her school and I noticed that they were all girls and they were all white (or hispanic if that is a distinction worth making). And I was wondering how she arrived at that group of friends. 6 year olds, it seems to me, are a lot more alike than different. They all seem to want to play and they pretty much all seem to want to do the same types of play.  Maybe boys play a little rougher and girls engage in more nurturing play. It seems like that a bit but its not a strong trend. They all seem to mostly like running around, crashing into each other and jumping off stuff.

Their interests seem a little more differentiated. My daughter loves “LOL Dolls” whereas I’m guessing most of the boys in her class do not. Girls seem generally more interested in girl characters and “girly” toys. Boys seem a bit more interested in boy characters and boy toys. I don’t know if there are inherent differences that the shows and toys pick up on or if there is subconscious pressure from parents for the kids to pick the more “appropriate” things. I tend to think it is more that children who are trying to develop an identity will pick characters that are more similar to them and toys that are “for” them because both will give some clues about who they are. You can learn more about being a girl from watching a girl in a movie or playing with a girly toy than you can from boy stuff.  But even if 6 year old boys and girls have somewhat differentiated interests, when they play those interests don’t seem that important. They aren’t having deep conversations about LOL Dolls for the most part.

People seem to pick friends based on some sorts of commonality. Whether its common interests or common personalities (or at least personalities that complement each other) or common outlooks on life or shared experiences. For 6 year olds, personality and interest don’t seem very differentiated, they don’t understand the concept of a personal outlook or philosophy, and they are having their shared experiences now.  So, how can they choose who to be friends with? Maybe they just choose based on the most obvious differentiating criteria: gender and appearance. Girls can relate to other girls just by the fact of being girls. Even though they do the same activities and play almost the same way as boys, just that difference is enough to make them attracted to each other. Similarly, white kids may be more attracted to other white kids, just because they look more similar.

I don’t believe my daughter has any real concept of race or racial categories. I’ve never heard her use the words “white” or “black” to describe people.  I’m not sure that she is familiar with the concept of race at all. I definitely don’t think she would explicitly choose friends based on race, but being more interested in people that are more like herself seems very plausible. Our neighbor has a daugther with a very similar name and birthday, and she finds those similarities nearly magical. I can remember finding surface level similarities like that highly significant when I was a child. If you don’t have a defined identity, then you have to kind of grab onto whatever  you can.

If this self-segregating effect is real I wonder what its influence is on local minorities. If a child doesn’t much look like any of the other children in their class, does that make it harder to make friends? Will they always just be slightly less liked by the other children who can form more homogeneous groups? If they do find it harder to make friends or make as many friends that seems like it could be harmful from a developmental perspective. I wonder if that is a cost of racial diversity.  This study on high school students suggests that self-segregation along racial lines is a thing children do, when they have the chance.

Maybe a certain amount of self-segregation by adults is optimal in order to allow their children to have enough classmates that look like them to allow them to have a good friend group.  If the racial distribution in an area is like say 70% green, 30% purple (just to simplify it to 2 imaginary races) then maybe it doesn’t make much difference. An even spread of those 2 races across the area would pretty much allow all children to have a decent number of similar looking kids around for easy friendships. But what if an area is 90% or 95% green and 5-10% purple. Then would it make more sense for the purple people to cluster? Would forcing the purple children into situations where they are almost always surrounded by green children make them less happy in the short run and developmentally worse off in the long run? Would it be worth it so that the parents of green kids can feel good about the diversity that their children are being exposed to?

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