Childhood friendships: a sentimental education deciphered by sociology


“Birds of a feather flock together,” says the proverb. When it comes to childhood friendships, the rule is true: it is with friends of the same age, same sex and sharing the same activities that children first get along. But how are these social codes put in place? How do children tell them and in what way do adults contribute to them?

Author of a thesis on “The childhood of feelings” , Kevin Diter spent nearly a thousand hours observing the dynamics of playgrounds and listening to girls and boys talk about their perceptions of friendship and love. Back to his research results.

In your work, you explain that friendship is at the heart of children’s lives. What definition do they give?

Kevin Diter  : Generally speaking, friends, in the eyes of children, are the people with whom they get along best and share the most activities, those with whom they have the greatest closeness. Compared to love, friendship, according to them, mainly concerns children of the same sex. Beyond these conditions – therefore being of the same sex, also of the same age and having common centers of interest – there must be reciprocity.

As I told in an article in the magazine Genèses on “real friends” , boys who do not support their friends during a game of football, for example, will quickly be called to order. If we’re best friends, we think the same thing, we support each other no matter what. Among girls, I noticed friendship breakdowns where some shared their secrets and others did not.

Having friends is important in general because childhood, for them, is about having fun and we only have fun when we are surrounded by people with whom to play, to laugh, to share precisely those things. same activities that make you become friends. The biggest crying attacks I have seen in the playgrounds, outside of situations where they had been hurt, was when they heard themselves say “you are no longer my friend”, “ I won’t talk to you anymore.” There is a CM2 student who even told me “without friends, life is over”.

Does friendship have the same place in the lives of girls and boys?

KD  : Both girls and boys place great importance on friendship. But their practices are different. To take up the observations of the American sociologist Karen Walker , it would rather be said that the boys’ friendships are built side by side: they play together, they do the same thing. And girls’ friendships would be more face-to-face, based on exchanges, stories, sharing secrets – situations where language is more central.

How are these friendships expressed in the vocabulary and attitudes of children?

KD: Being friends means staying together, doing the same things all the time, agreeing. We show it to each other, we tell each other. There is something very performative about friendship. Some girls will treat themselves to hearts that say “BFF” (“Best friend forever”). Children talk about “best friends” but also “real friends”, without fear of superlatives, like “the best of best friends”.

As with adults, who will distinguish between acquaintances and friends, the hierarchy is very strong when it comes to friendship among children. More than 70% of children from the primary school surveyed say that it is different to be friends with a child than to be their best friend. More than 90% use at least one criterion to differentiate relationships formed with the best boyfriend or best girlfriend from those formed with boyfriends or girlfriends.

The basis is to share activities. Friends are those with whom we enjoy playing like this, friends, those with whom we share tastes, with whom we stay for a long time, even all the time. And in the case of best friends, in addition to sharing activity, there is reciprocity in the exchanges and the support must be significant.

How do children draw the line between love and friendship?

KD: The first criterion is the sex of the child in front of them. Two children of the same sex playing together will be called friends. When children of different sexes are face to face, they will quickly be reclassified as lovers by other children and by adults.

The second point is practices. The childish love script involves holding hands and cuddling. Because adults have told them how much love matters in life, they know that although friendships can be strong, love will later be the most important feeling for them. They link it to the adult world and rather to female figures.

What are the places of friendship? Is school the central anchor?

KD: School is where children spend the most time, so that’s where most of their friendships are formed. However, being “best friends” is also characterized by seeing each other externally, particularly in each other’s homes.

Surprising thing: when children are at home, out of sight, when they meet, for example, the sons and daughters of their parents’ friends, and when they are left a little more independent, there can be some transgressions of norms, with friendships between boys and girls, between children of different ages. But back in the schoolyard, they will talk very little to each other, it’s not okay to go “with the babies”, they will say in particular.

What about leisure spaces like summer camps?

KD: I have not investigated the summer camps, I only have what the children have to say on this subject. From what the girls told me, it was a space where they had had lovers of a different age, usually a few years older, sometimes younger. Peer constraint would be less strong than at school where children observe each other. However, as Pauline Clech has shown, the summer camp is an enveloping institution and can reproduce the same age and gender distributions as in a school setting.

To what extent do parents influence children’s friendships?

KD: Parents can facilitate friendships through invitations.

Julie Pagis and Wilfried Lignier also showed how parents could limit and constrain friendships by directly telling the child “you should not hang out with this person”, “he only does stupid things”, etc.

But the influence of parents can also come through what Julie Pagis and Wilfried Lignier called in The Childhood of Order the “symbolic recycling of injunctions and evaluations of adults”. Children will re-appropriate the words used by adults to judge their peers. For example, a child said to me about a friend: “When he writes too big, it’s bad.”

In a survey, I asked participants by what criteria another child was their best friend. I gave them a list of a dozen qualifiers – polite, honest, strong in class, handsome, good at sports, etc. – taken from previous exchanges. What was interesting was to see to what extent academic logic counted in their choices, beyond relational, aesthetic or moral logic, particularly among the youngest, in CP-CE1 classes.

The weight of adults in general is important to the extent that they can give “value” to children. The case of this student who arrived in CM2 at the school is instructive. He had a hard time making friends because the school was relatively small and the children had almost all known each other since kindergarten. One day internal Olympic games were organized at the school and there, this student exceeded all performances. The next day, he had a whole crowd of friends, he had lovers. The recognition from the facilitators and the praise from adults in general made it socially desirable.

What surprised you the most in this world of children?

KD: They have a very developed social sense , which is what is most impressive from an adult point of view. Of course, they will still ask for advice, some sometimes came to see me to ask me: “should I be offended when someone says that to me? » But while still in the learning phase, they already have a very detailed knowledge of the rules of the social world and its hierarchies.

Author Bio: Kevin Diter is a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Lille