Social Development and Relationships in Childhood Research Paper

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Middle childhood is a time of considerable change in children’s social competencies and interpersonal relationships. Descriptions of the salient features of this developmental period highlight an expansion of the social world as children spend increasing amounts of time outside their homes, away from their families, at school, with peers, and in extracurricular activities (Collins, 1984; Eccles, 1999). Learning to interact effectively in these new and diverse social settings is at the core of social development in middle childhood. Building on conceptual models that emphasize adaptation to interpersonal and setting demands as fundamental to social behavior and social competence (Cairns & Cairns, 1994; Ogbu, 1995; Rose-Krasnor, 1997), in this research paper we describe the nature of and influences on social development between ages 6 and 12 years.

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Although middle childhood is often viewed as a period of consolidation between two periods of striking change (i.e., infancy and early childhood on the one hand and adolescence on the other), both theoretical accounts and empirical evidence highlight the unique developmental tasks that children confront during the school-age years. From the realm of ego psychology, the writings of Erik Erikson (1963) and Harry Stack Sullivan (1953) stress the significance of experiences in middle childhood for later healthful development. Erikson portrayed this period as one focused on the development of a sense of industry as children become competent at a range of activities valued by the societies in which they live. Middle childhood is a time when children become immersed in work: schoolwork in the case of children living in industrialized countries and paid labor in the case of children in developing countries. In the context of new work roles, social behaviors emerge, are practiced, and change, and their emerging social competencies are an important component of children’s successful task performance.

Sullivan (1953) described the importance of what he termed the juvenile era (the early part of middle childhood) as “the actual time for becoming social” (p. 227). Key to making the transition into this developmental period are declines in egocentrism and increasing awareness of others’perspectives brought about through association with age-mates. The social developmental process continues in the preadolescent era through the development of an intimate and egalitarian relationship with a particular same-sex age-mate, or chum. According to Sullivan, the chum relationship is central to both the development of self-understanding and the individual’s later involvement in mature, close relationships. From Sullivan’s perspective, adaptations children make in the context of their social interactions with a best friend define social development in middle childhood.

A second perspective on development in middle childhood targets changes in children’s cognitive abilities. Jean Piaget’s theory (Piaget, 1932) highlights advances in logical reasoning, problem solving, and the ability to think about abstract representations. Metacognitive skills—which allow children to step back and think about their thoughts, plans, and activities—also develop at this time (Flavell, 1976). Piaget, like Sullivan, highlighted the accommodations children make in the course of social exchanges with peers as an important impetus for cognitive growth. Later in this research paper we consider how children’s emerging understandings of self, other, and the social world have implications for their social behavior and relationships.

In contemporary research, the work of Robert Cairns and colleagues (Cairns, 1991; Cairns & Cairns, 1994; Cairns, Gariepy, & Hood, 1990) has contributed conceptually and empirically to our understanding of social behavior and development. Basing their ideas on a series of human and comparative studies, Cairns and colleagues argue that adaptations in social behavior arise out of a tension between forces for continuity and forces that promote novelty and change (Cairns et al., 1990). With respect to the experiences of the individual in the context of interpersonal interactions, for example, Cairns (1991) explains that “a special feature of social behavior is the ability to adapt to changing circumstances while simultaneously maintaining internal coherence and dyadic organization in action. Social behaviors are jointly determined from within and without, yet there is both intrapersonal synchrony and interpersonal integration. Despite having to serve two masters simultaneously—or because of it—the system is kept reasonably stable as well as reasonably plastic” (p. 25). One reason that the study of social behavior is important is that external influences on individual development can be directly observed in the behavioral accommodations that appear during the course of social exchange.

Stepping back to consider the larger picture of development and change, Cairns et al. (1990) highlight a second set of tensions that control the emergence of novelties in the development of the individual and in the evolution of the species. Although evolution and development are conservative processes, these authors argue that “. . . there must be avenues for rapid change both in ontogeny and in microevolution if behavioral systems are to be functional in time and space” (p.62). From this perspective, the study of social behavior also is important because its inherently accommodating function makes social behavior the leading edge of the adaptations that constitute individual development and microevolution.

These ideas—core to a psychobiological approach to the study of development—imply several challenges for an analysis of social development in middle childhood. The psychobiological concept of development not only directs attention to understanding continuities in development, but also emphasizes the search for novelty and change. We therefore ask the following question: In the face of the consolidation of earlier skills and abilities that characterizes middle childhood, what are the emergent features of social development that also define this developmental period? A psychobiological framework also highlights the web of coacting influences that guide the course of social development—influences ranging from the biological to the contextual and including the active, mediating role of children’s own constructions of their social worlds and their social experiences (Cairns & Cairns, 1994; Lerner, 1982). In this research paper we review factors that influence developmental and individual differences in children’s social behavior and social experiences; in the face of models that highlight coacting influences on children’s social functioning, documenting the workings of these processes is a complex effort whose goal remains elusive.

Eisenberg (1998) recently provided an insightful analysis of emerging themes in research within the broad domain of social, emotional and personality development. First, Eisenberg noted the attention paid in recent research to external influences on children’s social development, particularly in studies of the ways in which features of the larger social context influence children’s social experiences. Reflecting the field’s increasing appreciation of the network of influences on children’s social development, Eisenberg also highlighted a focus on within-individual processes, including biological, emotional, and cognitive factors in children’s social behavior and development. With respect to these within-individual developmental processes, another research emphasis noted by Eisenberg pertains to self-regulation processes—specifically, developmental changes in the integration of external and selfcontrol across the course of childhood. Studies of regulatory processes provide a window on changes during middle childhood in the nature and significance of children’s active role in their own experiences and development. Yet another important theme in recent literature is the importance of the role of interpersonal relationships in children’s social development. Finally, Eisenberg stressed the importance of questions of process—that is, the delineation of mechanisms through which internal and external influences operate together to produce individual differences and developmental changes in children.

A discussion of the complete range of social developmental phenomena is beyond the scope of this research paper; readers are directed to the recent review chapters on topics ranging from emotion and prosocial development (Eisenburg & Fabes, 1998; Saarni, Mumme, & Campos, 1998), to peer relationships (Rubin, Bukowski, & Parker, 1998) and family influences (Bugental & Goodnow, 1998; Parke & Buriel, 1998) in the Handbook on Child Psychology for in-depth analyses of issues in children’s social development. In reviewing research on social development here, we have chosen topics relevant to many of the themes of contemporary research on social development highlighted in Eisenberg’s analysis of the field. We begin broadly with a picture of the social ecology of middle childhood; one goal of this discussion is to direct attention to the diversity of settings in which children spend their lives. Specifically, we consider models for conceptualizing and measuring children’s social ecologies, and we review research on children’s everyday activities as one instantiation of an ecological perspective on children’s social development. We then turn our attention to studies of individual developmental processes that constitute the bulk of extant research on social development, focusing on two domains— social cognitive development and emotion regulation—as examples of such developmental processes. Our review highlights how these processes unfold during middle childhood, what factors influence individual differences in these domains, and how these processes are tied to children’s social experiences and competencies. Our survey of ecological and individual factors in social development provides a grounding for a discussion of children’s interpersonal relationships—specifically, their parent-child, peer, and sibling relationships—in the final section of this research paper.Afocus on children’s social development implies an analysis of the emerging social competencies and behaviors of the individual child, but the study of social relationships also demands a dyadic level of conceptualization and analysis (Hinde, 1979). As we note, studying children’s individual development in the context of their interpersonal relationships is not the same as studying the development of children’s interpersonal relationships. Furthermore, as our review reveals, we know somewhat more about the former than about the latter.

The Social Ecology of Middle Childhood

The contexts of children’s social development are as diverse as they are dynamic. For example, in the space of a generation or two, the family setting for European-American middleclass children (the focus of most extant research on social development) has changed dramatically in at least two important ways: the involvement of their mothers in the labor force and the likelihood that youth will spend at least some of their childhood in a single-parent or stepfamily. For U.S. children as a whole, between 1940 and the mid-1990s the rate of maternal employment went from less than 10% to greater than 70% (L. W. Hoffman & Youngblade, 1999). Furthermore, whereas fewer than 10% of children were living in a singleparent family in 1960, by the mid-1990s that figure reached almost 35% (Hernandez, 1997). Changing family demographics make for changes in the socialization agents and institutions of childhood: stepparents and siblings, after-school child care programs, and caregivers figure in the social experiences of greater numbers of U.S. children, thereby increasing the diversity and complexity of their social ecologies.

Possibly even more significant are analyses that have alerted researchers to large populations of children in the United States who traditionally have been neglected in child development research—including children living in poverty, who constitute more than 20% of children in the United States, and children of ethnic minority status, who constitute almost 45% of children in the United States (Hernandez, 1997). In the face of recent efforts directed at their study, we still know very little about the social ecologies of these children’s lives. When one considers that children in developed countries—where most child development research has been conducted—constitute less than a fifth of the world’s population of children, it becomes evident that our field faces an important challenge as researchers seek to document the range of social development experiences that characterize middle childhood.

Models of the Social Ecology of Childhood

In his 1979 volume, The Ecology of Human Development, Urie Bronfenbrenner laid out his influential model of contextual influences on the developing child, a model that highlighted contexts ranging from the everyday settings in which children spend their time—such as the family, peer group, or school—to larger cultural-societal systems that exert their impact by virtue of the structure, expectations, and meanings they impose on children’s everyday settings and experiences. From the field of cultural anthropology come theoretical constructs such as the ecological niche (Weisner, 1984), which provide a framework for operationalizing and measuring the ecologies of middle childhood. According to Weisner, the ecological niche refers to the social and cultural environment within which a child and his or her family are embedded. The term niche highlights the dynamic and adaptive nature of the social-cultural environment. The evolution of the niche comes about as a function of subsistence demands that operate within a given physical, political, and social setting; children and their families adapt to the demands of the setting but also act on their settings to effect change. Furthermore, the ecological niche includes not only the physical environment, but also the goals, motivations, and scripts of the individuals within that setting.

Weisner (1984) defined five categories or clusters of niche characteristics that provide challenges to and supports for children’s development; the everyday behavioral adaptations children make to these setting demands are at the heart of their social development. The first includes factors related to the health and mortality of the child’s social group. Features of the context, ranging from health care availability to dangers in the community—in forms ranging from predators, to warfare, to traffic laws, to the availability of bicycle helmets—fall into this category; learning the social rules and scripts a society has developed to negotiate these setting features is an important component of social development in middle childhood. The second category has to do with the provision of food and shelter. What kinds of work parents do and when they do it, parents’expectations for their children’s future roles as workers, and—as we shortly consider later in some detail—children’s own role in the family economy are context characteristics with implications for children’s social experiences and development. A third set of niche characteristics highlights the “personnel” involved in children’s everyday activities and the kinds of caregiving activities those individuals undertake. The extent to which children spend time with adults, other children, or both, in relative isolation or in groups are some of the ways in which niches can be distinguished. Such a focus highlights the different social opportunities of children in different ecologies. Related to the issue of personnel present is the role of women in the community and the extent to which distinctions are made in the opportunities and expectations for males versus females in a society; such patterns will be central to children’s everyday social experiences, as well as to their images of their future roles in adulthood. A final category has to do with the availability of alternative cultural models—that is, the extent to which variations in the characteristics previously outlined exist within a community or are evident from without; children’s experiences vis à vis alternative models affect the way they interpret the social demands of their own settings, as well as their ideas about their own developing roles and competencies.

The elements of children’s social ecologies outlined by Weisner define a broader range of life circumstances for children than is common in most accounts by developmental scholars who study children’s social development. Efforts to capture variation in children’s life circumstances often have relied on global indexes such as social class or ethnic background—what Bronfenbrenner and Crouter (1983) refer to as “social address variables.” As Weisner (1984) argued, measuring features of the ecological niche directly allows the researcher to “decompose global descriptors like socioeconomic level into much more complex set of measures. In addition, measures derived from ecocultural niche domains are more likely to reveal the mechanisms by which class or education produce their effects on children.” This is because elements of the ecological niche have direct implications for children’s everyday experiences including (a) the activities and tasks in which children spend their time each day, (b) children’s companions in their everyday activities, and (c) the cultural scripts that provide the meaning and motivation for children’s everyday experiences.

Children’s Daily Activities

In research on cross-cultural differences in children’s time use, we see how features of the ecocultural niche shape children’s everyday activities in ways that are likely both to reflect and to have important implications for children’s social development (Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Larson & Verma, 1999). Reviewing the literature on how children and adolescents spend their time, Larson and Verma highlight as foremost in importance differences in the relative amounts of time children spend on work and leisure that distinguish children and youth from industrial, preindustrial, and transitional societies. Cross-cultural analysis of the nature of and balance between children’s work and leisure shows how these areas change between early childhood and adolescence and how they are tied to the subsistence demands and associated material conditions of families and communities. Societies also differ markedly in the extent to which children’s work and leisure—and the balance between the time spent in each—are sex-typed.

Within the sphere of work, children’s activities can be divided into work activities that contribute to economy of their families, including unpaid domestic work (household chores, sibling caregiving), wage-earning activities (which usually take place outside the home), and “work” activities that are designed to promote children’s individual development and skills such as schoolwork (Larson & Verma, 1999). In industrialized societies, where making a living requires specialized skills, children’s work comes predominantly in the form of schoolwork. Data from a range of cultures reveal that children in nonindustrial societies—girls in particular— may spend half their waking hours doing housework; however, among children in industrial societies who attend school, the average child spends less than half an hour a day on household chores (Goodnow, 1988; Larson & Verma, 1999; Medrich, Roizen, Rubin, & Buckley, 1982). These differences in time use have implications in such areas as the kinds of social rules and scripts children learn, their everyday social partners, their family roles as economic contributors versus “ornaments” (Zelizer, 1985), and their expectations regarding their future roles as adults. In turn, their social competencies will be an important element in children’s success in their everyday work activities. Sex differences in children’s work are striking: Whereas girls tend to spend more time than boys do in housework, boys tend to be more involved than girls are in wage-earning jobs. In the United States, common paid jobs during middle childhood are paper routes and babysitting (Medrich et al., 1982), but elsewhere around the world, middle childhood is the time when children begin working for pay in factories, in agriculture, and on the street (Larson & Verma, 1999). Despite variations in the form work takes, across diverse settings, middle childhood is the time at which children’s work responsibilities begin to comprise a significant portion of their waking hours: By this metric, middle childhood can indeed be described as a period of industry (Erikson, 1963).

On the other hand, the meanings attributed to children’s work—both their schoolwork and their labor—vary considerably within and across cultures. Moreover, it is in the meaning of children’s work that cultural values—particularly those of individualism versus collectivism—inhere. Recently researchers have given more attention to the meanings and motivations for work—both household work and schoolwork—undertaken by children in Western societies. The results of this research suggest that the developmental implications of children’s work vary considerably as a function of whether work is seen as directed at fulfilling personal versus family needs and goals. When differences emerge, it appears that a collectivist (as opposed to an individualistic) orientation promotes developmental advantages in the form of prosocial development and individual well-being and achievement (Goodnow, 1988; Weisner, 1984).

The amount of free time available for children to spend in play and leisure activities also varies considerably around the world. Larson and Verma (1999) suggest that among some nonindustrialized societies, availability of free time is sextyped, with boys having up to twice as much free time as girls. Subsistence opportunities and demands are probably the most important factor in explaining children’s free time in nonindustrialized societies; when employment and economically productive opportunities for children’s relatively unskilled labor are available, children have less time for play and leisure. Children in the United States are notable for the sizable quantity of their free time—up to 50% of their waking hours (Larson & Verma, 1999). Across middle childhood, the nature of children’s leisure changes in potentially important ways, from more time spent in relatively unstructured play (e.g., sociodramatic play, play with toys) to more time spent in organized activities away from home, for example, in the form of clubs or team sports (Medrich et al., 1982; Newson & Newson, 1976; Posner & Vandell, 1999; Timmer, Eccles, & O’Brien, 1985). Despite its significance in the ecology of everyday life, however, we know little about the implications of free time use during middle childhood for children’s social development. Free time may be a source of stress to the extent that children are hurried by frenetic schedules of extracurricular activities (Elkind, 1981)—a missed opportunity for cognitive development to the extent that it takes children away from schoolwork (Stevenson & Lee, 1990), or free time may present an opportunity to develop social competencies and interpersonal ties (Larson & Verma, 1999; Werner, 1993).

Along with changes in what children do with their free time and where they spend it come changes in the social contexts of children’s leisure activities. As children move toward adolescence, an increasing amount of their time is spent with peers, outside the direct supervision of parents (Collins, Harris, & Susman, 1995; Parke & Buriel, 1998). Consequently, parenting from a distance by acquiring information about children’s activities and companions and helping to organize children’s involvement in social activities outside the home becomes an increasingly important component of child-rearing activities for parents during middle childhood. Children who spend their free time in sports and organized activities are likely to do so in the company of nonparental adults who can play an important role as mentors and sources of support; these social opportunities may be particularly important for children in troubled family circumstances (Werner, 1993). One of the most dramatic features of middle childhood—and one that distinguishes this period from early childhood on the one hand and adolescence on the other— is the extent to which peer experiences are sex-segregated (Maccoby, 1990). As we note in our discussion of peer relationships later in this research paper, sex segregation in the peer group during middle childhood is a phenomenon that has been observed in cultures around the world. The social contexts of children’s everyday activities both reflect and have implications for an important domain of social-psychological functioning—children’s gender role development (Maccoby, 1998).

In sum, in contrast to what we have learned in recent decades about normative (within-individual) social developmental processes, we know much less about the everyday lives of children—including what they do, where they go, and with whom they spend their time. Furthermore, even less is understood about the social developmental implications of children’s everyday activities (see McHale, Crouter, & Tucker, 2001; Posner & Vandell, 1999, for some exceptions). An important direction for future research will be to describe how the ecologically grounded meanings and motives for children’s activities mediate the links between children’s time use and their social functioning and adjustment. Also needed is research on how patterns of everyday activities develop in different ecological niches.

Children’s everyday activities, including their task and interpersonal demands are a forum within which children’s social behavior emerges, is practiced, and changes. Within the individual, however, developmental processes also shape and set constraints on social behavior and relationship experiences, and these processes provide a foundation for the development of social competence. Indeed, as we have noted, most of the research on children’s social development highlights this latter focus on within-individual processes. It is to these developmental processes—specifically children’s social cognitive development, their emotion regulation abilities, and these abilities’ role in the development of social competence—to which we now turn.

Social Developmental Processes in Middle Childhood

Social Cognition and Social Competence During Middle Childhood

Middle childhood is a period during which children become better able to reason and think logically, no longer relying on superficial qualities or characteristics as the basis for their problem solving (Piaget, 1932). The emergence of logical reasoning abilities coincides with a decline in egocentrism and with the development of social perspective-taking abilities (Grusec & Lytton, 1988); these changes have implications for children’s self-awareness, self-understanding, and self-evaluation abilities (Harter, 1999). Children’s social understanding—in combination with their emerging sense of self—undergird the social comparison skills that also develop during middle childhood. Indeed, one skill that coalesces in middle childhood is children’s ability to use information from social comparisons in self-evaluations (Harter, 1999; Ruble, 1983). The array of social cognitive abilities that emerges in middle childhood is both cause and consequence of children’s involvement in an expanding and increasingly complex social world.

Research on how cognitive developmental changes are linked to children’s social understanding is one area in which researchers have focused almost exclusively on EuropeanAmerican children; except in the domain of moral development, we know little about how the nature of or the demands on children’s social understanding vary across age in diverse cultural settings. Furthermore, although Piagetian ideas served as a basis for early empirical studies of social cognitive development in middle childhood, contemporary researchers have moved away from such broad developmental models in order to examine developmental processes within specific areas of functioning (e.g., perspective taking, moral development). In addition, researchers have incorporated new frameworks of cognitive development—specifically, information processing models—into their conceptualization and study of social cognitive development. In the following discussion we consider three areas of study highlighted in work on children’s social cognitive development: the development of children’s perspective-taking abilities, their prosocial dispositions, and their social information-processing skills.

Development of Perspective-Taking Skills

Selman (1980) described social development in terms of qualitative changes in children’s ability to understand the perspectives of others. Specifically, he argued that children’s social understanding progresses through an invariant sequence of stages marked by distinct and universal patterns of thinking. In contrast to cognitive developmental changes as outlined by Piaget, however, Selman emphasized that “social perspective taking involves a developing understanding of the intrinsic psychological characteristics and capacities of individuals, not just the complex coordination of decentered cognitive operations, that is, it has an intrinsically social component . . . the social or psychological content is inextricable and equally as important as the logical or operational structure which may in turn be its basis” (Selman, 1980, p. 22). Likewise, according to Selman, shifts in perspectivetaking abilities result as a function of the interaction between children’s cognitive development and their interactions in their social environments. By middle childhood—through the role-playing of familiar social roles, for example, in play—children gain skills that allow them to realize that two individuals can have different interpretations of the same event. By around age 10, when children tend to be immersed in more coordinated and organized activities such as games, clubs, or sports, they are able to understand others’ perspectives as well as their own. By the end of middle childhood, Selman argues, children have the ability to simultaneously consider multiple social perspectives and abstract societal norms.

Changes in perspective-taking ability have implications across multiple domains, including the development of the self system and experiences in close friendships, peer-group relations, and parent-child relations (see Selman, 1980, for a detailed discussion of these domains). For instance, Selman suggests that shifts in perspective-taking ability during middle childhood allow for more elaborated understanding of the internal and external selves; such understanding has important implications for self-consciousness, including notions of an imaginary audience and personal fable that emerge in adolescence (Vartanian & Powlishta, 1996). As with other research on children’s social cognitive development, however, research on perspective taking generally has been limited to a focus on White, middle-class children in the United States. Moreover, although a number of studies have provided empirical support for Selman’s model of progressive sophistication in perspective-taking ability (e.g., Gurucharri, Phelps, & Selman, 1984), some recent research suggests that perspective-taking abilities may emerge in particular domains (e.g., visual or spatial) earlier than Selman had originally suggested (Miller, Holmes, Gitten, & Danbury, 1998; Taylor, 1988), and that child-specific characteristics may play an important role in the development of these abilities (e.g., Miletic, 1996). Furthermore, intervention-oriented studies suggest that training and practice can improve perspective-taking abilities (Chalmers & Townsend, 1990; Lane-Garon, 1998). Researchers have begun to examine the implications of perspective-taking ability for ethnic identity development as a way to enhance exploration opportunities that minority children need for identity achievement later in adolescence (Markstrom-Adams & Spencer, 1994; Quintana, Castaneda-English, & Ybarra, 1999).

Development of Prosocial Cognition and Behavior

Children can use their social cognitive abilities in more or less positive ways; they may direct their abilities to achieve self-, other, or mutual goals. The study of children’s prosocial dispositions—which define the goals and motivations for children’s social behavior—encompasses research on the development of moral judgment and moral behavior in children. Although they are conceptually related, research in these two areas has been conducted within two distinct traditions.

The study of moral development has focused on children’s moral judgments and cognitive developmentally based changes in children’s understanding of right and wrong. Based on his early studies, Piaget (1932) argued that middle childhood marks shifts from an heteronomous stage, in which children’s moral values develop out of a unilateral respect for authority, to an autonomous stage, in which conceptions of reciprocity and equality emerge. Consequently, during middle childhood, rules previously perceived as fixed are now seen as more fluid and based on internalized standards. These changes are associated with children’s cooperation and perspective-taking skills and are brought about by increased peer interaction in an expanding social world (Piaget, 1932). Kohlberg (1976) built on Piaget’s ideas, proposing a threelevel model of the development of moral judgment directed toward the achievement of a postconventional moral orientation, in which individual, self-chosen principles prevail. In outlining his developmental model, Kohlberg claimed that members of all cultures follow the same universal, invariant sequence of stages moving toward the same universal ethical principles. Kohlberg and Kramer (1969) also suggested that females were less likely than were males to reach the highest level of moral development, although few studies have found substantial sex differences.

Reviewing research that has tested Kohlberg’s model, Snarey (1985) found evidence substantiating Kohlberg’s model across diverse cultures ranging from tribal villages to industrialized cities. Snarey found, however, that cultural groups that value collective solidarity rather than individual rights and justice were significantly less likely to achieve Kohlberg’s postconventional moral level. Similarly, Gilligan (1982) argued that Kohlberg inadequately described female moral development, which—in contrast to Kohlberg’s focus on moral justice—follows an alternate path focusing on the morality of care and responsibility for others. Gilligan suggested that these differential paths emerge as a result of the greater concern females give to relationships, caregiving, and intimacy. Eisenberg et al. (1987) found evidence supporting Gilligan’s assertions in a longitudinal study following children from middle childhood into adolescence.

Gilligan’s work was one impetus for a reinterpretation of moral development among some theorists who view moral values as consisting of distinct domains that research has often mistakenly lumped together (Turiel, 1994). In some cultures, for instance, the moral domain consists of justicerelated issues involving individuals’ rights or welfare, whereas the societal domain consists of rules dictating social conventions or norms, such as gender roles. Research suggests, however, that welfare and the law may not be culturally universal principles for basing evaluations in the moral domain (Nisan, 1987). In the United States, Smetana and Braeges (1990) found that children can distinguish between these two domains by early childhood, but their distinctions become more consistent across criteria with increasing age. Arsenio and Ford (1985) suggest further that children come to distinguish between these two domains via the greater affect related to moral transgressions relative to that associated with social norm violations.

Studies of empathy move analyses from a focus on children’s prosocial cognitions to the study of their prosocial feelings and behavior, which Eisenberg et al. (1999) suggest may reflect personality dispositions formed during childhood that remain relatively stable into adulthood. Empathy represents an individual’s emotional response to another’s emotional state and has been the focal point of studies examining prosocial behavior during childhood (Bengtsson & Johnson, 1992; Eisenberg et al., 1999; Litvack-Miller, McDougall, & Romney, 1997). Some studies suggest that empathy tends to be stronger in girls than in boys (Zahn-Waxler, Friedman, & Cummings, 1983), and this work shows that empathic responses include multiple reactions, such as personal distress and sympathy (Eisenberg et al., 1999). M. L. Hoffman (1982) proposed that social cognitive development and emotion processes interact to explain empathic reactions; emotional and social perspective-taking skills—which more fully develop during middle childhood—mediate affective arousal and thus influence the intensity of the empathic response. Therefore, children who are better able to see others’ points of view experience greater empathy and are more likely to help others out of sympathy rather than as an attempt to alleviate personal distress (Eisenberg et al., 1999). Numerous studies have documented links between perspective-taking skills, empathy, and prosocial behavior among schoolaged children across cultures and socioeconomic levels (Bengtsson & Johnson, 1992; Carlo, Knight, Eisenberg, & Rotenberg, 1991; Garner, 1996; Litvack-Miller et al., 1997).

Although the relationship between empathy and prosocial behaviors becomes stronger with age (e.g., Eisenberg et al., 1999), Blasi (1980) argued that a variety of situationspecific factors—such as the genuineness and urgency of the other’s needs—mediate the relationship between moral judgment and moral behavior and become increasingly important with age. Blasi (1980) also suggested that developmental changes in middle childhood have significant implications for the extent to which children enact their moral cognitions and feelings. For instance, children who lack perspective-taking abilities will be less likely to behave prosocially when self-needs compete with others’ needs. Grusec (1983) proposed that children’s socializing agents can play an important role by establishing social scripts or schemas of prosocial behavior and by encouraging children’s use of those scripts during social interactions. It is important that children learn to adapt their social scripts to the needs and expectations of their social partners and to the demands of their immediate settings within a larger system of social values and beliefs.

Development of Social Information-Processing Skills

An information-processing approach to explaining children’s social development differs from a cognitive developmental approach in several important ways. Researchers in this tradition begin with a precise analysis of particular social tasks facing a child; these investigators’ primary goal is to learn how children use the information available to them in responding to task demands. Changes in children’s behavior— due to intervention efforts or to everyday experiences—are thought to be a function of changes in children’s content knowledge about a task and their strategies for using taskrelated information.

Several social information-processing (SIP) models of social cognitive development have been proposed to explain the links between the ways in which children interpret or understand social behaviors and cues, children’s resulting social behaviors, and—in turn—their social adjustment. Crick and Dodge (1994), for example, outlined one SIP model that suggests that children, whose abilities at any given age are limited by biologically based constraints, enter social situations with a database of past experiences, including memories, rules, social schemas, and social knowledge. During social interactions, children go through a series of steps including encoding and interpreting social cues, clarifying their goals for social interaction, accessing possible behavioral responses, choosing a response from their pool of choices, and then enacting their chosen response. When children search their database for previously applied responses, the database conversely stores information regarding the current situation for future use.

SIP models such as the one just described have been used extensively in the study of socially maladjusted children, particularly those who are highly aggressive. The results from a series of studies of U.S. children suggest that those with poor social adjustment and skills may suffer from distortions or deficits in their information-processing skills at one or more of the steps of information processing (Crick & Dodge, 1994). For instance, researchers have identified attributional biases in rejected and/or aggressive children who exhibit a greater tendency to see hostile intentions as the cause of others’ behaviors toward them (Dodge, 1980; Quiggle, Garber, Panak, & Dodge, 1992). Other evidence suggests that these kinds of inaccurate attributions may be specific to children who display reactive or retaliatory aggression (Crick & Dodge, 1996). Here, children’s strategies for interpreting social cues are perceived to be faulty, and thus intervention efforts should be directed at changing the way children understand others’ behaviors.

In contrast to the idea that deficits in social cognitive abilities give rise to social adjustment problems, recent research suggests that some aggressive children might actually be manipulative experts in social situations. Sutton, Smith, and Swettenham (1999), for example, found that 7- to 10-year-old “ringleader bullies” scored higher on tests of perspectivetaking than did “follower bullies” (bully-supporters), victims, or even children who defended victims. These ringleaders were essentially best at understanding the mental states, beliefs, and emotions of others, suggesting that this particular group of aggressive children may be advanced in some elements of their social knowledge. Thus, whereas social information processing models provide an account of how children’s social understanding may be linked to their ability to negotiate social interactions effectively, other kinds of models are needed to explain individual differences in children’s motivations and goals for their social interactions and relationships. Furthermore, although information processing models make assumptions that cognitive abilities and skills are maturationally constrained and improve across development, explanation of the sources of such developmental changes awaits further study. An important direction for SIP research is to examine the applicability of these kinds of models across a range of cultural and subcultural contexts.

Emotional and Social Development: Self-Regulation and Self-Control in Middle Childhood

Emotion is commonly conceived as a motivational force underlying social behaviors, and expression of emotion is a central component of social interaction (Eisenberg, 1998; Saarni et al., 1998). According to Sarni et al., emotion is “the person’s attempt or readiness to establish, maintain, or change the relation between the person and the environment on matters of significance to that person” (p. 238). Emotion regulation in turn involves a dynamic process of matching intrinsic reactive tendencies and coping strategies with environmental stressors and coping resources on the one hand, and norms about appropriate emotional expression on the other (Eisenberg, 1998; Saarni et al., 1998). Abody of studies on the development of emotion regulation documents that children who effectively regulate their emotions and their emotion-related behaviors via a diverse and flexible repertoire of responses—tailored to contextually grounded demands and motives—are more socially competent (Eisenberg, 1998; Parke, Burks, Carson, Neville, & Boyum, 1994; Saarni et al., 1998).

Changing patterns of everyday activities during middle childhood—including spending more time outside the home and away from direct parental supervision—mean that children must learn to manage their own emotions. In childhood, effective emotion regulation is reflected in children’s control over when and how they express their emotions, as well as in children’s expanding opportunities and abilities to pick niches—including particular activities or specific social settings—whose demands fall within the range of their coping and self-control abilities (Eisenberg, 1998; Skinner & Wellborn, 1994). A larger social world also means that children confront increasingly varied behavioral repertoires in their social partners and encounter new requirements for emotion expression and regulation. As children move into new and more varied settings, they learn that they must adapt their emotion expression to contextual demands.

In the following pages we describe factors that influence emotion regulation during middle childhood; we also highlight the implications of emotion regulation processes for children’s social competence and adjustment. Characteristics of the individual that have implications for emotion regulation include developing cognitive abilities, which, for example, allow children to recognize emotions in themselves and others or anticipate reactions by others (Dodge, 1989; Parke et al., 1994; Saarni et al., 1998). Individual differences in temperament also play a role, for example, in the intensity of a child’s reactions to social experiences or the degree to which children attend to and learn from socialization efforts (Skinner & Wellborn, 1994). Factors from without or extrinsic factors range from the emotional climate, to the demands of proximate environments, to the availability of role models of appropriate emotional expression (Dunsmore & Halberstadt, 1997; Sarni et al., 1998). Such factors also include the behavior of the social partners who elicit emotional reactions from children, children’s experience of stressful life events, and circumstances that may place extra demands on children’s regulation capacities (Skinner & Wellborn, 1994). These personal and interpersonal processes in turn take place within contexts (family,peergroup,school)thatdefinespecificbutpotentially very different ranges of appropriate emotional expression. This area of study is a broad and burgeoning one with a heavy emphasis on the study of infants and young children (detailed analyses of development in this domain can be found in reviews by Eisenberg 1998; Fox, 1994; Saarni et al., 1998; Thompson, 1991).

Intrinsic Factors in Emotion Development

Intrinsic factors that underlie emotion and emotion regulation help to establish children’s social interaction styles and thresholds for social stressors. Some of these factors have documented biological substrates and include genetic factors undergirding individual differences in temperament, sex differences in boys’versus girls’emotion behavior, and maturational factors that govern cognitive developmental changes in self-understanding, -regulation and -control.

Temperament can be defined as differences in reactivity, including children’s disposition toward impulsivity or inhibition; temperamental characteristics contribute to individual differences in self-regulatory behaviors, such as arousal threshold and reaction duration and intensity (Eisenberg, 1998; Saarni et al., 1998). Children with high emotional intensity may be inclined toward less effective coping strategies and less attention control, and those who are easily distracted or prone to arousal may be less successful at attending to and processing signals from others (Eisenberg, 1998). Of significance is that individual differences in children’s dispositions toward emotional expression—grounded in temperament—mean that the effects of socialization efforts or contextual demands will vary considerably across children. The goodness of fit between a child’s temperament and environmental demands (e.g., expectations, stressors) determines how much tailoring a child must do to accommodate successfully to a given social context (e.g., Lerner, 1982).

Sex differences in children’s emotion-related social cognitive abilities are not widely apparent; girls and boys are equally capable of encoding and decoding emotion and of developing emotion-coping repertoires. Nonetheless, girls and boys may evoke contrasting gender socialization efforts regarding their emotionality and emotion expression. With respect to their strategies for coping with stress, girls are more likely to use emotion-focused coping strategies, whereas boys are more likely to use problem-solving strategies (Saarni et al., 1998). Sex differences in adjustment that have emotion-related components are also widely evident and become more pronounced toward the end of middle childhood, with girls more inclined to exhibit internalizing problems such as low self-esteem or depression, and boys more inclined to exhibit externalizing problems such as physical aggression or thrill-seeking behavior.

Cognitive developmental processes constitute an additional set of intrinsic factors that undergird emotional regulation. For example, during early childhood cognitive advances allow children to recognize their emotional states; perspective-taking skills, consolidated in middle childhood, mean that children become better able to anticipate and understand the expectations, reactions, and behaviors of others. Cognitive advances also provide for more sophisticated social cue recognition and interpretation and greater sensitivity to both person and situation signals. Children also become better able to anticipate others’ emotional reactions and the consequences for their own emotional displays and to understand the causes of their own and others’ emotions (Eisenberg, 1998; Saarni et al., 1998; Selman, 1980). Drawing upon their developing meta-understanding of emotion, children expand their repertoires of coping strategies to include introspection (e.g., reinterpreting negative situations more positively), redirecting attention, and arousal avoidance (Saarnietal., 1998; Skinner& Wellborn, 1994). Children also recognize that their own and others’overt reactions are not always consistent with felt emotions. As a result of knowing that emotions and reactions are sometimes disassociated, children learn to change their reactions—despite feeling the same emotion—to conform to situational demands and experience social approval. For example, children bullied at school may exhibit courage, while experiencing fear; in the face of failure and disappointment, children learn to keep smiles on their faces.

Extrinsic Factors in Emotion Development

Between early and middle childhood, adult regulation of children’s emotions and emotional expression transforms into adult-child coregulation, and ultimately to children’s self-regulation of their emotion experiences (Collins, 1984). Some researchers have targeted the family—in particular, parent-child interactions—as the root of emotion and emotion regulation (Dunsmore & Halberstadt, 1997; Eisenberg, 1998; Thompson, 1991). For example, children’s expectations regarding their own and others’ emotional displays and reactions may be influenced by their exposure to models of emotional expressiveness within the family. In the family context, children learn values and norms about appropriate emotional displays and about their own responsibility for their emotional expression (Dunsmore & Halberstadt, 1997; Saarni et al., 1998). Some work suggests that when parents are overly restrictive of their children’s emotional displays, children’s social competence may be impaired (e.g., Gottman, Katz, & Hooven, 1997). In addition, family interactions provide children with practice at controlling and expressing their emotions and at reading the emotions of others (Dunsmore & Halberstadt, 1997; Gottman et al., 1997; Parke et al., 1994; Saarni et al., 1998). Finally, parents can help children learn to avoid uncontrollable stressors by orchestrating their involvement in everyday activities and social contexts outside the home (Parke et al., 1994; Saarni et al., 1998).

Whereas infants and young children require sensitive adults to read and respond to their cues, by middle childhood children can play a more active role in directing their everyday experiences, such as by choosing activities, contexts, and social partners that better support their emotional styles and needs (Saarni et al., 1998). The expanding social world of middle childhood, however, means that children must learn and apply norms of emotion expression that vary across context: What is permissible in the context of the family may differ markedly from what is appropriate in the peer group or at school. Increasing autonomy and time spent outside of direct parental supervision also means that greater self-control is required from children. The school setting is marked by pressure for children to conform to behavioral expectations, serving as a major motivation for self-regulation and constructive coping of emotion during the middle childhood years (Saarni et al., 1998).The peer group is also an important context for emotional development, and a number of studies have documented that appropriate emotion regulation in the peer group is linked to greater social competence and more positive peer relationships (Rubin et al., 1998; Parker & Seal, 1996). An important consideration is that differences across settings in what constitutes appropriate emotional expression may be more pronounced for some children than for others; likewise, the demands for self-control and constraints on emotion expression in particular settings may or may not be compatible with a child’s dispositions. For instance, children reared by depressed parents or those who experience coercive parent-child relationships may develop emotion expression dispositions that involve withdrawal in the former case or escalation of negative emotion in the latter (Saarni et al., 1998; Thompson, 1991). These types of emotion regulation, however, do not translate well to the school environment or to the peer group and may result in social rejection or isolation. In turn, rejected and isolated children miss opportunities to learn different and adaptive social-emotional interaction styles (Dunsmore & Halberstadt, 1994; Saarni et al., 1998).

Personal Characteristics, Socialization Influences, and Contextual Demands: Interacting Influences on Emotion Regulation

Developmental models highlight interactive processes involving individual characteristics, learning and experience, and the demands of the immediate setting in explaining social behavior (Cairns, 1991). Because it is a period marked by increased opportunities for independence and involvement in new social settings, middle childhood may present a challenge for children’s emotion regulation in the form of potential inconsistencies between personal dispositions and past learning on the one hand and the demands of new and immediate settings on the other. Dunsmore and Halberstadt (1997) propose that the match between familial emotional style of expression, child predispositions, and extrafamilial contextual demands will be an important determinant of effective emotion regulation in children. Although Collins (1984) suggests that a certain degree of inconsistency may enable children to develop a more differentiated understanding of the social world, children who experience less consistency may have more difficulty regulating their emotions and may require more resources—in the forms of social support or coping strategies—to do so. Extant research provides scant evidence about how to support children in their response to the diverse and sometimes inconsistent demands for emotion expression and regulation in their everyday experiences. Such information would enhance our understanding of individual differences in emotional regulation and provide insights about potential avenues for intervention.


Research on children’s everyday social experiences and social competencies during middle childhood highlights the challenges children face as—with ever-increasing autonomy—they navigate a more diverse and complex social world. Maturing cognitive and physical abilities allow children to undertake new and different kinds of activities in their work and in their play; novel activity settings in turn place demands on children’s social competencies; and it is in the behavioral accommodations children make in adapting to new settings that social development is manifested (Cairns, 1991). As such, an agenda for researchers studying social development is to explore just how the demands of their activity settings first elicit and then support adaptations in children’s social behavior.

Recent theoretical efforts directed at defining social competence highlight the importance of understanding children’s social behavior in its larger context. Rose-Krasnor (1997), for example, argues that social competence should be defined as effectiveness in social interaction; competence can not be evaluated independent of the social context because (a) the context-dependent nature of social competence means that behaviors that are effective in one context may not be so in another; (b) children’s everyday social behaviors are influenced in part by factors such as emotional arousal or motivation level, which are affected by setting conditions; (c) children’s social behaviors are goal directed, and their goals are tied to the demands and constraints of their social settings; and (d) children’s social behaviors emerge in their interactions with particular social partners and therefore must be evaluated in terms of the responses of others. RoseKrasnor’s focus on effectiveness as fundamental to social competence is congruent with John Ogbu’s (1995) argument, framed within a broader, cultural-ecological perspective, that human competencies must be understood in terms of the adaptation requirements of a given ecology. For children this means that socialization experiences will be directed at developing different kinds of social knowledge and selfregulation abilities in different social and cultural settings.

A challenge for social development researchers is to expand the scope of their studies to examine the array of settings around the world in where children spend their time in which they develop and practice novel social behaviors.

Social Relationships and Development in Middle Childhood

Children’s interpersonal relationships provide a context for their social development. Social behaviors emerge, are practiced, and change in the context of interactions with significant others, casual acquaintances, and strangers. The “personnel present” is one important component of children’s activity settings (Weisner, 1984); the everyday lives of children in different cultures and in different historical eras can be distinguished by whom they spend their time with and also by the nature of the relationships they form with their companions.

Children develop as individuals in the context of their relationships, and their relationships also undergo development and change. Changes in dyadic relationships are a function of the development of both partners as individuals as well as the history of the relationship partners’shared experiences (Hinde, 1979). As should become evident, research on how children’s individual development is affected by their relationship experiences represents the bulk of the literature in this domain; focusing on change at the level of the dyad adds an element of complexity to the study of social development but is an important focus for researchers interested in children’s social development. In this section we consider three kinds of relationships that are central in the lives of children: relationships with parents, with peers, and with siblings. We begin each section with an overview of how these relationships change during middle childhood, and then we discuss research on how their relationship experiences have implications for children’s individual growth and competencies.

Children and Their Parents

During middle childhood, parent-child relationships evolve in the direction of greater mutuality, with adult regulation increasingly supplanted by coregulation and reciprocal exchange between parent and child (Collins et al., 1995; Collins & Russell, 1991). The nature of parents’ involvement with their children also changes. Time spent during infancy and early childhood in shared activities focused on caregiving and play is supplanted by parenting from a distance, as when parents observe or supervise their children’s activities or learn about their children’s experiences secondhand. Finally, children’s emerging social cognitive skills mean that they are developing a more differentiated perspective on their parents: all-knowing and powerful parental figures may be increasingly perceived as individuals with needs and interests that go beyond their parenting roles, and this recognition may alter children’s and parents’ behaviors and emotions in their shared relationship. Despite these many changes, however, relatively few studies have studied parent-child relationships during middle childhood; instead, much of the focus on developmental changes in parent-child relationship focuses on adolescence (see Collins & Russell, 1991; Russell & Saebel, 1997, for reviews of research on parent-child relationships).

What is evident in the literature on children’s relationships with their parents are the important differences between their experiences with their mothers versus their fathers. A thorough review of issues of gender and parent-child relationships is beyond the scope of this research paper; at the most general level, this literature suggests that children’s relationships with their mothers and fathers generally take distinct forms, with mothers being more involved overall and children feeling closer to their mothers; fathers’ involvement, in contrast, tends to center on play and leisure activities, with conversations focusing on instrumental topics. In addition, probably because of their more extensive contact and closeness, children’s relationships with their mothers involve more conflict, whereas in their relationships with their fathers, children are more deferential (see Collins & Russell, 1991; Maccoby, 1998; Russell & Saebel, 1997, for reviews).

As we have suggested, the majority of research on parents and children has been devoted to studying how the quality of parenting is linked to children’s social development and well-being. In the face of increasingly diverse and changing family forms (Hernandez, 1997), however researchers are becoming more focused on the family contexts of children’s experiences with their parents. Families are not limited to maritally intact, biological mothers and fathers with children; in fact, this traditional family form is becoming increasingly rare in Western societies. An ecological perspective highlights that parent-child relationship dynamics—as well as the effects of parent-child relationships on children’s social development—are likely to vary as a function of family structure and as a function of the larger cultural context in which the family is embedded. A discussion of the range of parent socialization and parent-child relationship experiences in diverse family settings is beyond the scope of this research paper (interested readers are directed to overviews by Parke & Buriel, 1998, on differences in parenting across ethnic groups, Arendell, 1997, on parenting in divorced and remarried families, Allen, 1997, on lesbian and gay parents). We limit our discussion to an overview of models of parental influence, highlighting what may be the special features of family experiences that are connected to social development during middle childhood.

Most of the research on parental influences on children’s social development focuses on parents’ role as interaction partners with their children (Parke & Buriel, 1998). By virtue of their level of warmth and responsiveness and by the ways in which they attempt to control their children’s behavior, parents provide children with social interactional experiences that shape children’s expectations about, understandings of, and behaviors in other interpersonal relationships. Research that focuses on children’s emotional attachments to their parents (e.g., Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978) and research that examines the links between parental style and children’s social functioning (e.g., Baumrind, 1971, 1991) fall within this tradition.

Recent analyses of parents’ role in the socialization process have noted limitations of these early, more deterministic models, directing attention, for example, to contextual moderators of parent socialization influences, to the impact of children’s characteristics and behaviors on parental activities, and to the cognitive and affective processes that underlie observed parenting practices (e.g., Bugental & Goodnow, 1998; Collins, Maccoby, Steinberg, Hetherington, & Bornstein, 2000). These accounts highlight the complexities of parental socialization processes and suggest new directions for research. As one example of an expanded model of parental socialization, the tripartite model of parenting proposed by Parke and colleagues (Parke et al., 1994) focuses on parents’activities as “direct instructors” and “providers of opportunities” along with their role as interaction partners. Whereas the influence of parent-child interactions on children’s social development is indirect (as when children develop expectations for experiences in close relationships that are generalized to new social partners), parents may directly influence their children’s social development by giving their children advice about negotiating new social experiences and inculcating values about appropriate ways of relating toward relatives, friends, or strangers (i.e., direct instruction) or by engineering social opportunities for their children such as by picking the community where their children will reside or providing funds for and transportation to school and extracurricular activities. Relative to research on parents’ indirect role in children’s social development, we know much less about parents’direct role in children’s social experiences. Yet when one considers the broad range of circumstances in which children’s lives unfold and the corresponding goals for social competence that parents hold (Ogbu, 1995), parents’ directive activities are clearly a central component of parental roles. In the following pages we review the limited research on parents’ direct influence and highlight key areas of study focused on parents’ indirect influences on children’s social development.

Parents’ Role in Children’s Social Development: Direct Influences

Within the context of the parent-child relationship, parents directly influence their children’s social development in a variety of ways. Of fundamental significance is the parents’ choice of the environments in which their children are reared (Parke et al., 1994; Super & Harkness, 1986). Aspects of the environment include the social and physical characteristics of the child’s immediate setting, such as the home, neighborhood, and school; but as Weisner (1984) suggested, elements of the broader social setting—including its political, economic, and cultural components—also have important implications for children’s development. The range of choices available to parents is necessarily limited, but within this range children may develop ideas about their parents as powerful and competent adults and about their own significance in their parents’ lives based on parents’ ability and willingness to make choices that are advantageous to children’s well-being.

Parents also are responsible for transmitting values and attitudes—both their own and those of the larger community in which they live—to their children. Parents serve as role models and educators for children, they construct their home environments in ways that convey parental values, and they engineer children’s out-of-home activities in ways that will promote their goals for their children’s development. For instance, parents who value education may make it a priority in children’s lives by limiting the amount of television viewing or by encouraging children to read (Stevenson & Lee, 1992). Parents also create and maintain a home environment that teaches children about acceptable interaction styles. For example, parents demonstrate their values about appropriate social behavior by how they behave toward other family members; a body of studies has established links between parents’ experiences in other dyadic relationships in the family (such as with their spouse or with a child’s siblings) and children’s social development and well-being (Davies & Cummings, 1994; Gottman et al., 1997; Perlman & Ross, 1997). Additionally, parents teach children values by the kinds of activities they assign or support. Gender socialization may be fostered, for example, by how parents allocate household tasks to their daughters and sons or by the kinds of extracurricular activities they encourage (McHale, Crouter, & Tucker, 1999). Finally, explicitly through instruction or implicitly through their own reactions and behaviors, parents teach children how to decode the meaning of others’ social behavior and how to respond in kind (Parke et al., 1994).

Another important element of parents’ directive role involves their efforts to scaffold their children’s development (Rogoff, 1990). The process of scaffolding includes sensitivity to children’s current ability level coupled with stepwise advising and training to foster new skill acquisition. Parents usher children on to their next level of social functioning by choosing new developmentally appropriate social activities that challenge but do not overwhelm, by practicing new scripts (e.g., riding the bus on the first day of school) before they actually are needed, or by intervention in an ongoing interaction when a child appears to be floundering (Palacios, Gonzalez, & Moreno, 1992).

Parenting from a distance becomes increasingly prominent in middle childhood with children’s burgeoning autonomy and involvement in a new array of social settings. Parents actively select children’s activities, set rules concerning children’s whereabouts and companions, and monitor their children’s behavior from afar. This places a new burden on the children, who must adjust to new routines and social scripts and to parental expectations for conduct and disclosure. A body of work on parental monitoring and knowledge of their children’s activities highlights the importance of this domain of parenting activities for children’s well-being (Crouter & Head, 2002).

Although research on parents’ directive role focuses on parents as socialization agents, the active role of the child should not be dismissed. Within their family and community contexts, children evoke reactions from others by virtue of their personal characteristics, and they seek increasing opportunities to select their own niches (Scarr & McCartney, 1983). Furthermore, the success of parents’ directive socialization efforts is dependent in part on children’s willingness to be socialized. Darling and Steinberg (1993) argue that warmth and closeness in the parent-child relationship, developed through parent-child interaction experiences, is an important determinant of whether parents’socialization practices will be effective.

Parents’ Role in Children’s Social Development: Indirect Influences

The bulk of research on the role of parent-child relationships in children’s development highlights how interactions within the parent-child relationship have broader implications for children’s social development and well-being. Such indirect influences of parent-child relationships have been studied by researchers focused on parent- (particularly mother-) child attachment and by those focused on parental style. Although these perspectives traditionally de-emphasized the active role of the child in the socialization process, the theoretical orientation to socialization has shifted in past decades from a parent-to-child model to a greater appreciation for the reciprocal nature of influences between parents and children. Characteristics such as children’s sex, temperament, and cognitive sophistication are important factors in determining the kinds of parenting strategies parents employ as well as the effectiveness of those strategies (Collins et al., 1995; DeaterDeckard & Dodge, 1997; McGillicuddy-DeLisi, 1992).

Research on parent-infant attachment links sensitive responsiveness by caregivers early in children’s lives to later social and relationship competence. The importance of early experience derives from children’s sense of security that their needs will be met within the context of their first social relationships (which usually are with parents). As a result of interpreting and internalizing their early parent-child relationship experiences, children are thought to develop internal working models or expectations about future relationships with others. Sroufe and Fleeson (1986) argue further that these early parent-child relationship experiences underlie personality development, where personality is defined as the “organization of attitudes, feelings, expectations, and behaviors of the individual across contexts” (p. 52). From this perspective, continuity in personality organization should be evident across age, although the manifestations of individual differences will change with development. In middle childhood, attachment researchers have documented links between early parent-infant attachment and children’s social competence with peers (Rubin et al., 1998; Sroufe, 1979).

A second line of study has examined the significance of parental style for children’s social development and wellbeing. Baumrind (1973) proposed one of the most influential models in this regard, documenting the significance of authoritative parenting, a style characterized by high warmth, democratic discipline, and developmentally appropriate limit-setting, for the development of social competence from early childhood through adolescence. Expanding on Baumrind’s typology, Maccoby and Martin (1983) identified four patterns of parenting that vary along two dimensions: the extent of parent control and the degree to which parents are responsive and child centered. As in Baumrind’s typology, in addition to the authoritative style (appropriate control and high in responsiveness) Maccoby and Martin identified a group labeled authoritarian, which refers to a parental style characterized by high levels of restrictiveness in combination with low levels of responsiveness and warmth. Baumrind (1991) found that this style was associated with especially poor outcomes for boys. In contrast, indulgent or permissive parents are high in responsiveness but low in control and tend to have children who have poor impulse control. Finally, neglectful or uninvolved parents are low in both warmth and control and are focused more on their own needs than on those of their children.

Parental style is connected to the broader circumstances of family life. McLoyd and others (McLoyd, 1990; McLoyd & Wilson, 1990), for example, describe how the stresses that accompany poverty may give rise to emotional distress and decreased responsiveness and involvement on the parts of parents. Stressors such as marital separation and divorce also negatively affect parenting style (Hetherington, 1989), with implications for children’s social competence and adjustment. Equally important influences on parental style are parents’ child-rearing goals and values. For example, Kohn (1977) argued that the more authoritarian style of workingclass fathers in the United States arises out of men’s belief that obedience and conformity are important attributes for success in the workplace and that a harsher and more restrictive discipline style best promotes such qualities. Other writers suggest that context characteristics ranging from the level of violence and danger in the neighborhood to cultural norms within the wider ecology that highlight collectivist versus individualistic values will have implications for parents’choice of child-rearing style as well as for how a particular style is associated with social competence and adjustment in children (Ogbu, 1995; Parke & Buriel, 1998). Finally, a burgeoning literature stresses that parents’ beliefs about how children develop and their attributions about the causes of child behaviors highlight some of the processes through which the larger social ecology may exert an impact on parental behavior (Bugental & Goodnow, 1998; McGuillicuddy-DeLisi, 1992). These kinds of analyses highlight that parent-child relationships and their implications for children’s development are best understood when they are examined within their larger social ecology.

Children and Their Peers

Middle childhood is a developmental period when children turn from parents to peers for companionship in their everyday activities; this change is part of a pattern of children’s increasingly active role in choosing where and with whom they spend their time. Research suggests that children’s interest in their peers, together with their increasingly sophisticated social cognitive and emotion regulation abilities, are tied to newly emerging characteristics of children’s peer experiences. These emerging characteristics involve quantitative changes in peer group size and qualitative changes in the bases of friendships.Abody of work examines how children’s experiences with their friends and in their peer social networks have implications for their current and future social competence and adjustment. Our discussion in the following pages provides an overview of the predominant areas of research on peer relationships in middle childhood.

The Development of Peer Relationships in Middle Childhood

Several important changes characterize peer experiences and friendships during middle childhood; like other elements of children’s social development, these changes reflect both children’s developing cognitive abilities and their expanding social worlds. With respect to peer experiences more generally, increased exposure to a world outside of the family context means that children spend their time with a more diverse set of same-age peers. Children also begin to spend their time with peers outside the direct supervision of parents or other adults. A striking element of peer interaction during middle childhood is its sex-segregated quality, which has been documented in cultures around the world (Cairns & Cairns, 1994; Fagot, 1994; Maccoby, 1994). In early childhood, mixed-sex peer groups play together. Later in adolescence, boys and girls develop dyadic romantic relationships, and larger social groups may include both sexes. In middle childhood, however, cross-sex friendships and activities are quite rare within the visible peer group, such as on the school playground (Adler, Kless, & Adler, 1992; Maccoby, 1998), although some findings show that same-sex friendships occur in more private settings (e.g., Gottman, 1994). Maccoby (1990) suggests that gender segregation may be based in boys’and girls’ distinct and sometimes incompatible interaction and play styles; sex segregation in peer and friendship groups in turn exacerbates sex differences in social interaction styles. Other investigators (e.g., Fagot, 1994; Leaper, 1994) concur that the tendency for sex segregation in the peer group may both reflect and have important implications for gender role socialization. Fagot (1977), for example, found that girls who attempt to join male peer groups and who participate in crosssex behaviors are ignored whereas boys’ feminine activities and behaviors instigate negative feedback from both male and female peers.

Groups or cliques—which consist of stable, voluntary friendships, typically of three to nine same-sex, same-race children—also form for the first time during middle childhood. These social groups provide a reference point for social comparisons and self-evaluations; only later in development will adolescents begin to use absolute and personal standards (Harter, 1999). The emergence of cliques also leads to the organization of popularity hierarchies. In middle childhood, boys’place in the social hierarchy tends to be based on social dominance, athletic ability, coolness, and toughness (Adler et al., 1992; Hartup, 1992). In contrast, girls’social status depends on family background and socioeconomic status (SES) and physical appearance (Adler et al., 1992; Thorne, 1994). For both boys and girls, social skillfulness is an important factor in social dominance.

Children’s awareness of and concern for their popularity status greatly increases during middle childhood and may be related in part to their social cognitive development, which provides for an increasing appreciation of the perspectives of others. Consistent with such changes is the increasing prominence of gossiping (Parker & Gottman, 1989). Gossip is one basis for a child’s social reputation with peers (Hartup, 1992; Hymel, Wagner, & Butler, 1990) and can serve other social functions, including the communication of social norms and expectations to group members; such communications often take place through negative evaluations of others (Eder & Enke, 1991; Gottman & Mettetal, 1986). Because direct confrontation is inappropriate within their peer culture, gossip constitutes an important form of communication among girls, in particular (Corsaro & Eder, 1990).

Children’s increased autonomy during middle childhood coincides with their greater control over the types of activities in which they participate. Rough-and-tumble play is replaced by games with or without formal rules, and peer interactions become increasingly coordinated (Corsaro & Eder, 1990). Although the activity settings of children’s peer interactions during middle childhood have not been well described, Zarbatany, Hartmann, and Rankin (1990) found that peer involvement most often occurred during conversation (both in person and over the telephone), while children were “hanging out,” and when they were playing sports. The only sex difference in peer interactions that emerged in this study of peer activities was that girls interacted with their peers more through telephone conversations than did boys.

In addition to developmental changes in orientations toward the peer group, middle childhood also is a time of change in friendships. Among the U.S. children who have been the primary focus of study, friendships in middle childhood tend to be age- and sex-homogeneous (Hartup, 1992; Rubin et al., 1998). In a biracial southern community, Shrum, Cheek, and Hunter (1988) found that during middle childhood, gender homophily peaks and then begins to fall in adolescence, whereas race homophily first appears and then begins to increase during middle childhood, plateauing in adolescence—a pattern that may reflect children’s initial awareness of racial identity. Children’s friendships in middle childhood are also characterized by greater reciprocity, commitment, and affectional bonds compared to those at younger ages. As mentioned earlier, Sullivan (1953) suggested that the development of friends, or chumships, is predicated on decreasing egocentrism and increasing perspective-taking ability; these changes provide the potential for greater reciprocity in peer interactions (Selman, 1980). In addition to sharing the view that middle childhood coincides with loss of egocentrism, Piaget (1932) suggested that middle childhood brings about the ability for greater abstract thinking. Consequently, the basis of friendships evolves from participation in common activities and the satisfaction of instrumental needs (e.g., for a play partner) at the start of middle childhood to the satisfaction of more abstract relational needs and goals, such as trust, honesty, and loyalty, in adolescence and beyond (Cairns & Cairns, 1994). Parker and Asher (1993) found that validation, help, and companionship are associated with greater satisfaction with friendships during childhood, whereas conflict is related to decreased satisfaction. They also noted that boys characterized their friendships as having less intimacy, validation, and help than did girls. Similarly, Cairns and Cairns (1994) reported that honesty and loyalty were more important to girls than to boys possibly, as selfprotection against the relational aggression that is manifested, in gossip and social manipulation (Crick & Grotpeter, 1995). In contrast to the greater prevalence of verbal or physical aggression in boys’ interactions relative to those of girls, Crick and Grotpeter (1995) found that such relational aggression strategies were more common among third- through sixth-grade girls than boys.

Children’s friendships have been characterized as having stability—that is, as showing continuity over time, distance, and events, but empirical data on this issue are equivocal (Rubin et al., 1998). For example, although relationship stability was greater for children in middle childhood than for those at earlier ages, based on their longitudinal study, Cairns and Cairns (1994) reported a high degree of long-term volatility in children’s friendships. During middle childhood, relationship change was at least partially attributed to limited opportunities for maintaining friendships—for example, when children moved to another community or were assigned to a different classroom at school. Although middle childhood marks a time of development in which children gain greater autonomy and greater control over their activities, their lives are still constrained. In the face of forces toward instability, however, behavioral characteristics of children do make a difference in children’s tendencies to establish and maintain friendships and in their social status, an issue we further consider in the next section.

Peer Influences on Children’s Social Development

Abody of work examines the connections between children’s experiences with peers and their social competencies and adjustment; as with studies of friendship, most of this work focuses on U.S. children. One set of studies focuses on children’s sociometric status, examining children’s social skills and adjustment as both cause and consequence of their popularity with peers. Using peer nominations, researchers in this tradition classify children into one of several categories: (a) Children who receive a high number of positive nominations (i.e., expressions of liking) and few negative nominations (i.e., expressions of disliking) are labeled popular; (b) those with many negative nominations and few positive nominations are labeled rejected; (c) children are labeled neglected if they receive few negative and few positive nominations; (d) they are labeled average when they receive an average number of both negative and positive nominations; and (e) children are considered controversial if they are given a high number of both negative and positive nominations. Although popular and rejected statuses seem relatively stable over time (Hymel, Rubin, Rowden, & LeMare, 1990; Roff, Sells, & Golden, 1972) neglected, average, and controversial statuses are less so (Ladd, 1999; Rubin et al., 1998).

A number of studies have shown that socially competent behaviors—including the ability to enter groups, initiate relationships, and maintain those relationships over time— are linked to sociometric status (Putallaz & Wasserman, 1990) as are children’s abilities to regulate their emotions (Eisenberg et al., 1987). Indeed, consistent manifestation of either positive or negative social behaviors is predictive of acceptance or rejection by the peer group (Coie, Dodge, & Kupersmidt, 1990; Dodge, Coie, Pettit, & Price, 1990; Harrist, Zaia, Bates, Dodge, & Pettit, 1997; Parker & Seal, 1996).

Moving away from a focus on social skill deficits of the rejected or neglected child, Hymel, Wagner et al. (1990) focused on the ways in which the social structure within the child’s environment can negatively influence a child’s peer acceptance. They suggest that—due to biases formed by previously established reputations—members of the peer group may be more likely to shun rejected children’s attempts to enter groups or initiate interactions.

In turn, substantial evidence links problematic childhood peer relationships to both current and future adjustment. Much of this work is premised on one of two models (Parker & Asher, 1987). The causal model suggests that low-accepted children are limited in their normal peer interactions and are thus excluded from normal socialization experiences and social support networks; such low involvement further perpetuates unacceptable patterns of social cognition, emotion, and behavior. In contrast to the assumption that problematic peer relationships cause maladjustment, the incidental model suggests that early forms of a disorder, which will later develop into maladjustment, inhibit positive peer relationships during childhood (see Parker & Asher, 1987, for limitations of these models).

Most research on the implications of social status for social adjustment has focused on popular and rejected statuses. As noted, popular children tend to be socially competent at entering new situations and are viewed as cooperative, friendly, sociable, and sensitive by peers, teachers, and observers (Dodge, Coie, & Brakke, 1982; Dodge, McClaskey, & Feldman, 1985; Putallaz, 1983; Newcomb, Bukowski, & Pattee, 1993). Although neglected- and average-statuses during childhood are not closely tied to later well-being outcomes, peer group rejection is associated with adjustment problems such as depression, aggression, poor grade retention, and poor academic competence over time (Coie, Lochman, Terry, & Hyman, 1992; Panak & Garber, 1992). Most sociometric research has focused on short-term correlational studies linking children’s peer acceptance to their concurrent or future adjustment, but some longitudinal analyses have documented the predictive power of peer acceptance (e.g., Hymel, Rubin et al., 1990; Kupersmidt & Coie, 1990). Based on their review of risk research, Parker and Asher (1987) concluded that low acceptance and aggressiveness predicted later maladjustment (criminality and early school dropout), but that there was insufficient evidence linking shyness and social withdrawal to poor outcomes. This may be in part because current research highlights overtly negative behaviors and externalizing problems rather than the mental health and relationship problems that may be more common in the development of children who are socially withdrawn and neglected by their peers.

In sum, an array of empirical evidence supports the proposition that peer acceptance has significant implications for children’s social development. Future research in this area should move beyond a focus on the number of children’s friends to examine the qualities of children’s relationships and the characteristics of the peer group (Hartup, 1996). Research on “deviancy training” (Dishion, Andrews, & Crosby, 1995) suggests, for example, that a child may have many friends, but that if all are antisocial, children’s well-being may be at risk. How children’s peer experiences are linked to the values and expectations of the larger social ecology is another topic for future study.

Children and Their Siblings

Like peer relationships, sibling relationships are an important part of life in middle childhood. These relationships have received less empirical scrutiny than have parent-child and peer relationships, but a body of work documents the unique role that siblings play in one another’s development (Dunn, 1998; Dunn & Plomin, 1990; Brody & Stoneman, 1995).

Through their everyday interactions, siblings can affect one another when they serve as models, teachers, and social partners. Siblings also influence one another indirectly by virtue of their impact on roles and relationship dynamics in the larger family system. In this final section, we describe the special properties of sibling relationships, highlighting the experiences of children in middle childhood. We then review research that exemplifies the mechanisms through which siblings may influence one another’s social development.

The Development of Sibling Relationships in Middle Childhood

Most children grow up in households that include one or more siblings. In the United States, demographic changes in fertility rates and divorce-remarriage mean that the size and structure of sibships have been undergoing striking change (Eggebeen, 1992). For example, U.S. census data show that among White families in 1950, over half of children of preschool age were living in households with more than two siblings; by 1980 this figure had declined to 30%. Among African Americans, the percent of young children with more than two siblings declined from almost 80% in 1950 to about 40% in 1980 (Eggebeen, 1992). More recent census data indicate that family size among all segments of the U.S. population continues to fall (Hernandez, 1997).

In the face of such statistics, cross-cultural analyses highlight the ubiquity of siblings in children’s everyday lives as companions and caregivers; from these analyses comes the observation that what varies across cultures is who else besides siblings will be an important part of the child’s social world (Weisner, 1989). Documenting the centrality of siblings in the everyday lives of working- and middle-class White children in the United States, daily diary reports show that during middle childhood, siblings are children’s most common out-of-school companions (McHale & Crouter, 1996). The companionship that siblings experience in childhood provides a foundation for what is one of the few lifelong relationships that most individuals will experience.

In addition to their centrality in children’s everyday lives, another important feature of sibling relationships in middle childhood is emotional intensity (Dunn, 1998). In fact, the emotional intensity of the sibling relationship may be what gives this relationship its developmental significance (Dunn, 1998). The sibling relationship has been described as a lovehate relationship to reflect a common observation that playful companions can turn very quickly into bitter enemies; indeed, conflict between siblings is one of the most common child-rearing problems reported by parents (Perlman & Ross, 1997). The nature and level of negativity between siblings are likely to be quite different from what occurs between children and their friends; because friendships are a voluntary relationship, children are likely to be more invested in maintaining harmony (Updegraff, McHale, & Crouter, 2001). Theories of the origins of sibling conflict that highlight the significance of sibling rivalry (e.g., for parents’ attention and family resources) underscore that the origins of sibling conflict also are different from the sources of conflict within other social dyads (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1956).

A third feature that distinguishes sibling relationships from other kinds of dyadic relationships pertains to the nature of sibling roles. Parent-child and peer relationships in childhood are distinguished by their degree of role asymmetry, with the former characterized by complementarity and the latter by more equalitarian or reciprocal exchanges. In contrast, sibling relationships involve both kinds of roles (Dunn, 1998). Although in some ways sibling relationships are peerlike, age and birth order differences mean that older siblings may assume the role of caregiver, teacher, or model. Indeed, in middle childhood and adolescence, as children spend increasing amounts of time outside the family, older siblings are often looked to as sources of information and advice (e.g., on peer experiences, school) in areas in which parents are seen as having less expertise (Tucker, McHale, & Crouter, in press).

Sibling Influences on Children’s Social Development

Siblings’role in children’s social development is both direct—siblings have an impact on one another in the course of their everyday interactions—and indirect, to the extent that siblings affect the daily activities, roles, and relationships in the broader family system. Early work on sibling influences highlighted sibling interaction experiences as a source of social development. Based on a series of studies in which interactions of young siblings were observed, Dunn (1998) argued that the emotional intensity of the sibling relationship motivates children’s development and use of increasingly sophisticated social skills and problem-solving strategies; in their efforts to prevail in the context of sibling exchanges, young siblings are likely to display more sophisticated social abilities than they might need in the context of interactions with either parents or peers. These ideas are based largely on studies of children during early childhood, however, and we know less about the kinds of social competencies children learn and practice with their siblings in middle childhood and beyond.

Cross-cultural work on siblings’ role as caregivers has likewise highlighted the importance of sibling experiences for positive social development. Describing the organization of agricultural and pastoral societies, Weisner (1989), for example, points out that older siblings—girls in particular— have a larger role in direct caregiving of children than do mothers. In such societies, mothers are likely to spend their time in subsistence activities (e.g., work close to home in the fields) while groups of young children, including neighbors and kin, are in the direct care of older girls, usually girls of middle childhood age. The organization of such societies, Weisner (1984) argues, promotes “attachment to community, early expectations of prosocial, mature behaviors, strong compliance and deference expectations, work and responsibility expectations . . .” (p. 346). These sibling caregiving experiences in turn are linked to social empathy, a focus on affiliation and cooperation (as opposed to competition), and a focus on age-mates—rather than adults—as a source of help and guidance (Weisner, 1984).

Not all of what children learn from their experiences with siblings promotes positive development. Work by Patterson (1986), for example, highlights sibling exchanges as a breeding ground for aggression. Studying sibling interactions within a social learning framework, Patterson found evidence of conflict escalation in sibling exchanges; these coercive cycles of escalating conflict practiced in the context of the sibling relationship can be generalized to parent-child and peer interactions. Such findings are echoed in research showing the sometimes deleterious impact of older, adolescent-age siblings on their younger sisters and brothers (e.g., Rowe, Rodgers, & Meseck-Bushey, 1992). Adolescent-age siblings may introduce their younger sisters and brothers to older peers and invite their involvement in risky behaviors such as substance use or early sexual activity. Some work suggests that younger sisters of older adolescent-age brothers are particularly vulnerable to these kinds of negative influences (Bank, Patterson, & Reid, 1996).

Another line of investigation—one of the earliest areas of research on sibling influences on social development— examined siblings’ role in gender socialization. Operating within a social learning framework that emphasized the significance of older siblings as role models, early investigators tested the hypothesis that sisters and brothers would model and reinforce their own qualities in their siblings, and thus that girls with brothers would develop more masculine qualities and boys with sisters more feminine ones (e.g., Koch, 1956; Sutton-Smith & Rosenberg, 1970). Although some support was found for this social learning hypothesis, results overall were equivocal, and the early studies suffered from a number of methodological shortcomings. More recently, researchers have attempted to study some of the dyadic and family processes through which siblings may affect one another’s gender development. Observational research on school-age children with opposite-sex siblings, for example, revealed that boys and girls with older brothers engaged in relatively more stereotypically masculine play activities and girls with older sisters engaged in relatively more feminine ones (Stoneman, Brody, & MacKinnon, 1986). More generally, the sex constellation of sibships has important implications for family patterns of activities, roles, and relationships (McHale et al., 1999).

What children learn from making comparisons between their own versus their siblings’ family experiences is an important means through which siblings indirectly influence one another’s social development. Following on the writings of Alfred Adler, who highlighted the role of sibling rivalry in personality development (Ansbacher &Ansbacher, 1956), researchers have devoted substantial attention to the role of parents’ differential treatment—specifically, favoritism directed at one child.Abody of research links differential treatment to children’ssocialemotionalwell-being(e.g.,Dunn,Stocker,& Plomin, 1990). Recently, investigators have suggested that the links between differential treatment and child functioning are not direct. Rather, the meanings children attribute to their parents’ differential treatment—including children’s understanding of their parents’ reasons for treating their offspring differently and children’s perceptions of the legitimacy of their parents’ differential treatment—are important moderating factors (Kowal & Kramer, 1997; McHale & Pawletko,

1992). More generally, the study of siblings’differential treatment exemplifies what can be learned about children’s development from studying the family system of relationships; the significance of parents’ differential treatment for children’s individual adjustment highlights the ways in which dyadic family relationships may be mutually influential.


Research on children’s interpersonal relationships suggests that as children move through middle childhood, their developing social-emotional and cognitive abilities give rise to changes in their relationships with important people in their lives. Children’s relationships in turn are a forum within which new social competencies emerge, are practiced, and change. Substantial effort has been directed at studying children’s social competencies in the context of their relationships, particularly their peer relationships (Eisenberg, 1998), and important new lines of study involve examination of the connections between children’s experiences in different social relationships and explorations of how children’s relationships operate within larger social systems such as the family (e.g., Easterbrooks & Emde, 1988; Parke & Buriel, 1998; Parke & Ladd, 1992). A direction for future work is to learn more about how children’s relationships change over time.

Also important are studies of how the social roles children assume in their relationships—as well as the scripts they employ and the behaviors they exhibit—are tied to the values and expectations of the larger social ecology.


Our goal in this research paper was to provide an overview of social development and social relationships in middle childhood. Middle childhood has been described as a period of skill consolidation between two periods of striking developmental change; our review underscores that important social competencies, including social cognitive skills and emotion regulation strategies, are practiced and refined during this period and have implications for children’s relationships with significant others in their lives. As we have suggested, an important limitation of work on developmental processes is its heavy focus on European American samples of children. Given the inherently adaptive nature of social behavior, it will be important to examine how social developmental processes unfold across a wider range of settings.

Stepping back from a focus on within-individual developmental processes to consider the larger context of children’s everyday lives, we see that middle childhood is also a time of newdemandsandexpectationsforsocialcompetenciesaschildren enter new social settings and spend their time in a diverse array of social contexts. Task demands are one important new component of the activity settings of middle childhood in cultures around the world; this developmental period is a time when children first become seriously involved in work and when children must learn to adapt their social behaviors to instrumental demands (Erikson, 1963). The activities of middle childhood—at school, in the context of paid labor, and even during free time—are ones in which children can succeed or fail, and children’s social competencies are central to their ability to succeed in many of their endeavors.

Middle childhood also is notable for the extent to which children spend time with other children—both siblings and friends—outside of the direct supervision and involvement of adults. Children’s self-regulation and social problem-solving skills are essential in the absence of parents or other authority figures; sanctions for inept or inappropriate social behavior may be absolute and harsh in the context of the peer group. On the other hand, shared experiences with peers that take place outside the company of adults may give rise to the feelings of intimacy and mutual understanding that first emerge in middle childhood and that are hallmarks of close friendships and group solidarity (Sullivan, 1952; Weisner; 1989).

Finally, middle childhood marks an expansion in children’s social worlds: Children spend their time in an increasingly diverse array of social contexts where they assume different roles, adapt to the expectations of different social partners, and conform to different setting demands—often without adults to scaffold their behavior. The expansion of the social world requires an ability to read and respond flexibly to setting demands and is linked in a reciprocal fashion to the metacognitive skills (i.e., children’s ability to think about their own social behavior and its implications) that first emerge in middle childhood. The kinds of behavioral adaptations that children make as they enter the novel roles, relationships, and activities of middle childhood are social developmental phenomena worthy of continued study.


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