Peer acceptance is the degree to which a child or adolescent is socially
accepted by peers. It includes the level of peer popularity and the ease
with which a child or adolescent can initiate and maintain satisfactory
Peer acceptance and relationships are important to children's
social and emotional development. Peer acceptance and friendship provide a
wide range of learning and development opportunities for children. These
include companionship, recreation, building social skills, participating
in group problem solving, and managing competition and conflict. They also
allow for self-exploration, emotional growth, and moral and ethical
development. Parents, teachers, and other adults are a good source of
social support for children, but it is among other children that kids
learn how to interact with each other.
When examining peer acceptance among children, researchers usually look at
two areas that are related to a child's psychological and social
development. The first area is the child's social standing in the
peer group as a whole and is indicated by the child's level of
social acceptance by other members in the group, usually classmates. The
second area is the child's individual friendships, characterized by
both the quantity and quality of these friendships.
Although genes may be a factor in a child's
and level of peer acceptance, environmental factors are also extremely
important. Some of the factors contributing to peer acceptance include:
Regarding having friends, the academic benefits show up very early in a
child's school career. Research suggests that those who start
with a friend in their class make a better adjustment to school than
those who do not start with a friend. Furthermore, children who maintain
their friendships as the school year progresses like school better, and
children who make new friends make greater gains in school performance.
The first step in childhood affiliations is the categorization of people
into groups. Although some researchers believe that the ability to
categorize is an achievement of toddlerhood, others suggest it is present
in infancy. In children, the top three categories of peer affiliation are
age, sex, and race. Children do not appear to make racial distinctions
before they are of preschool age but age and sex discriminations are made
earlier. There is evidence that infants make categorical distinctions
between males and females and between adults and children before they are
a year old. Signs of a preferential attraction to others like the self
also appear at an early age. Year-old infants are interested in and
attracted to other infants—including those they have never met
before—at an age when they are wary of strange adults. By the age
of two, they begin to show a preference for children of their own sex.
There is also research that suggests the quality of attachment between
mothers or primary caregivers during infancy can contribute to peer
acceptance later in childhood.
Customs of child rearing and patterns of parent-infant interaction vary
widely from culture to culture, but the children's playgroup is
universal. If the number of children in a given locality is small, the
playgroup will consist of children of both sexes and a range of ages; if
the number is larger, the children generally divide up into age- and
sex-segregated groups. Girls' groups tend to be split up into
subgroups. It is the social category, or psychological group that is
important here. Children can categorize themselves as members of a social
category even if it does not assemble in one place.
It is important to recognize the role of the peer group in maintaining a
preschool-age child's level of social acceptance. Once a child has
established a reputation among peers either as someone with whom it is fun
or as someone with whom joint play is unpleasant or dissatisfying, this
reputation may influence the way other children perceive the
child's later behavior. If a negative reputation is developed,
helping the child become accepted may require more than a change in the
child's behavior; it may also be necessary to point out to the
other children when the child's behavior changes and to guide them
to respond to the child in positive ways.
Research on imaginary companions suggests that young children who create
them do so to compensate for poor social relationships, according to a
study published in the May 2004 issue of the
International Journal of Behavioral Development.
As a result, there is less peer acceptance of children with imaginary
companions. Several other studies have shown that fantasy play is also
related to peer acceptance in children in preschool. Using a scoring
system that included the reality and unfamiliarity levels of fantasy play,
researchers found players who scored high had higher self-ratings of peer
acceptance than did average scoring fantasy players. However, the high
scoring fantasy players had lower teacher ratings of peer acceptance than
the average scoring fantasy players. Researchers suggest the difference
may occur because the high scoring fantasy players were unable to
distinguish imagined popularity from actual peer acceptance.
In school-aged children, factors such as physical attractiveness, cultural
traits, and disabilities greatly affect the level of peer acceptance, with
a child's degree of social competence being the best predictor of
peer acceptance. The peer groups of
, especially teens, are often based on athletic, social, or academic
interests and abilities; on distinctions of race, ethnicity, and social
class; and on proclivities such as drug use and delinquency. Children who
are peer-accepted or popular have fewer problems in middle and high
school, and teens who are peer-accepted have fewer emotional and social
adjustment problems as adults. Peer-accepted children may be shy or
assertive, but they often have well-developed
Peer-accepted children tend to be able to function in the following ways:
These skills are crucial in initiating and maintaining relationships and
in resolving conflicts. By contrast, rejected children tend either towards
or withdrawn, depressive behavior. They also do not listen well, tend not
to offer reasons for their behavior, do not positively reinforce their
peers, and have trouble cooperating. Antisocial children interrupt people,
dominate other children, and either verbally or physically attack them.
Depressive or withdrawn children may be excessively reserved, submissive,
anxious, and inhibited. Competitiveness or dominance by itself is not
necessarily indicative of low peer acceptance. In fact, popular children
tend to have characteristics associated with both competitiveness and
The need to be "one of the gang" is stronger as children
approach the teen years than at any other age. Children of all ages need
to feel that they fit in—that they belong.
Children learn to relate to peers by engaging in peer relationships. Some
children have problems making friends or "fitting in." Often
a vicious circle develops where a rejected child is given fewer and fewer
opportunities by his peers to relate and thereby learn new skills. Lack of
opportunity to participate normally in peer interaction is especially a
problem for children who differ in some obvious way, either culturally,
racially, or through some mental or physical disability. Parents and
teachers should address issues of peer acceptance as early as possible in
order to prevent loss of self-confidence and
In addition to providing direct social skills training or counseling for
the child with peer acceptance problems, parents and teachers can create
opportunities for non-threatening social interaction to occur. Though
children should never be forced to play together since this can create the
rejection it is intended to remedy, popular and less-popular preschoolers
can be encouraged to interact with one another. For example, a less
sociable child may be encouraged to answer and ask questions of others.
Older children should be provided opportunities to interact in smaller
groups and in one-on-one situations, where it may be easier to try out new
behaviors and make up for social mistakes. Shy or withdrawn children can
be encouraged to develop outside interests that will place them in
structured contact with others. In school, peer helping programs and
collaborative learning provide opportunities for popular and less-popular
children to work together. Ideally, collaboration should highlight the
less-popular students' strengths, such as special interests and
talents, rather than weaknesses. At any age, the small, positive changes
in behavior should be reinforced with attention and praise.
—Play activities in which children act out their fantasies.
—A building block of inheritance, which contains the instructions
for the production of a particular protein, and is made up of a
molecular sequence found on a section of DNA. Each gene is found on a
precise location on a chromosome.
—A person who is responsible for the primary care and upbringing
of a child.
Parents may need to seek professional psychological help for children who
suffer from peer rejection, especially when the child is depressed or
. Help may also be needed for adolescents whose acceptance by peers
relates to common
negative behaviors, such as gang affiliation, bullying,
, and drug and alcohol abuse.
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