We start learning how to form friendships pretty much as soon as we’re born: the first time we hold a gaze, return a smile, or recognize a face or a voice. By the time we’re old enough to understand the word “friend,” we already know that a bond with another person is something worth pursuing — it makes us feel good. But learning to form friendships is also part of a parallel learning process: We gain our first real friends by separating them from the not-friends. Kids spend the first decade or so of their lives figuring out what it takes to sustain a meaningful friendship — and they do it, in part, by discovering what it means to leave people out.
It’s a process that begins before we can even talk. For the first few years of life, kids engage in what psychologists call solitary play: Plunk two tiny humans down next to one another, and they may enjoy having the company, but they’re not really going to interact. Somewhere between the ages of 3 and 5, that transforms into parallel play, where they’ll do the same activities alongside one another; they’re still not playing together, exactly, but they’re getting closer. From there, they move on to associative play, which involves a little more interaction, like conversation or sharing toys. And by around kindergarten age, they’re at cooperative play, coordinating their make-believe roles or working together toward a shared goal.
As the level of their interaction grows, they’re careful to keep things at a level they can handle — which sometimes means turning away potential playmates. “Two preschoolers who are playing together will often reject a third kid who’s coming over — not because they’re trying to be mean, but because they’re working at the edge of their cognitive limits to coordinate their play,” says psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore, co-author of the forthcoming book Growing Friendships: A Kid’s Guide to Making and Keeping Friends. When it’s already mentally taxing to be part of a functioning duo, turning it into a trio can make for information overload. As kids get older and their brains can handle more people at once, their play situations can become more elaborate and, by extension, include more people.
For a time, at least. As kids learn to play together, they’re also working on acquiring a critical piece of knowledge: that other people are actually other people, with their own opinions and their own minds. It doesn’t take long for kids to learn that they like some people more than others; even a 12-month-old can show a preference for some of its fellow babies. But the ability to think about their relationships as relationships — in a way that allows them to sort some people into the more permanent category of “friends,” and the leftovers into “not friends” — is something that takes years to develop.
The psychologist Robert Selman broke this down into five distinct phases. In the first, which kicks in somewhere between the ages of 3 and 6, kids are more or less chubby little tornadoes of self-absorption. They’re capable of liking others, and playing with others, but tend to see other kids as extensions of themselves. “They get very upset when a friend has a different opinion. It kind of blows their mind,” Moore says. “Here the friends are really like momentary playmates … there’s kind of a ‘love the one you’re with’ quality.” These are the preschoolers who turn away the new would-be playmate. Exclusion is common, but it’s also momentary, without any longer-lasting social implications.
The second phase, which typically begins around kindergarten or a little after, is what Moore describes as the “what’s in it for me” phase: Kids are more aware of their pals’ independence, but channel that awareness into a sort of tit-for-tat dynamic. “We hear kind of a bargaining thing, like, ‘I’ll be your friend if you do this,’” she says. More than anything else, a friend “is someone who will do nice things for them.” Next is a judgmental phase, where kids gain a more sophisticated grasp of social rules and become hyperconcerned about fitting in; after that, a phase of intense, emotional bonding, where they easily become jealous of their friends’ other relationships. The last phase, which some kids reach as early as age 12, is mature friendship: “They place a high value on emotional closeness — they’re not as possessive,” Moore says, and “they can accept and appreciate differences between the friend and themselves.”
By the late elementary-school years, when most kids are in one of those latter three stages, almost everyone has enough of a grasp on the concept of friendship to claim membership in a friend group. For one thing, they now have the cognitive capacity to handle that group-based interaction, unlike their younger selves. More important, though, kids at the cusp of adolescence gravitate toward groups as kind of a security blanket — they’re starting to pull away from their parents and forge their own identities, and it’s often a lonely process. Having a gang makes it a little less so. “When you’re not sure who you are,” Moore says, “there’s safety in being part of the herd.”
There’s also more than just safety. When you’re trying to figure yourself out, your gang can be a kind of guidepost, explains Sarah Gaither, a social-psychology professor at Duke University: “We all want to maintain this positive view of who we are, and the groups we belong to only reinforce that positive view.”
And if you build your identity around a group, it’s important to define what that group isn’t. “That’s what really ends up pushing kids to be more exclusionary to other kids,” Gaither says. “If they’re really trying to reaffirm, ‘I’m in this group and this group is important to me.’” Over the course of elementary school, physical aggression is replaced by tattling, and then eventually by gossip — both ways of drawing boundaries, and of keeping an errant peer in their place. The act of shutting people out, then, doesn’t necessarily have much to do with the ones on the outside; more often, it’s an act of self-preservation.
This means that if a kid on the outside wants to break through, Moore says, they have to do it in a way that makes it clear they aren’t a threat to the character of the group. It boils down to a strategy she calls “watch, then blend”: Learn the rules of the group you’re trying join — whether it’s little kids playing a game of tag, or high-schoolers complaining about a certain teacher — then join in only once you’re sure you can play by them. “If everybody is enthusiastic about something, then the kid should express similar enthusiasm,” she says. “This is not about having to be like everybody else. It’s really just picking up the climate of the group.” Fitting in, in other words, can come down to how well you draw the line: On one side is us — bonded by whatever it is that bonds us — and on the other is everyone else.