The six levels of friendship
We often use the term friendship without
defining what kind of relationship we are talking about.We refer to friendships
as if they were all alike – as if the relationship of two 4-year-olds
is no different than two 16-year-olds. In reality friendship changes dramatically
from the initial bonds formed in pre-school years to the close friendships
of the older adolescent. For typical children, friendship is a progressively
complex array of skills. Friendships gradually become more sophisticated. They
reach their zenith by the close of adolescence. A number of psychologistshave constructed models for the stages of friendship development.
In summarizing their work I have developed
a six-level model of friendship development, which we use at The Connections
An important point to realize is that
typically developing children are not ready for peer friendships until they
have had extensive training and practice being partners with adults. Research
psychologist Carollee Howes, the world’s foremost expert on the development
of early friendships, has conducted research showing that in typical development
children are not interested in playing with peers, with the exception of brief interactions, until some time during their third year (Howes and Matheson 1992). In this initial pre-friendship level, adults function both as the principal social partners as well as guides. They prepare the child
to participate as an equal partner in the less predictable but more exciting
interactions with peers. This is a critical step that cannot be bypassed, as
it lays the foundation for all future friendship development.
Children at Level II are mainly concerned
with finding an equal partner with whom they can share and coordinate activities.
Friends areconsidered those peers who consistently act as enjoyable playmates
and who communicate their desire to interact with their friend by showing excitement and consistently choosing their friend when opportunities present themselves. Even at this beginning friendship stage, a peer friend is expected to take equal responsibility for coordinating the pair’s actions.
In Level III the elements of collaboration
and mutual support come into play. Friends experience the strength of acting
together as a unit to solve problems and overcome obstacles. Friends help each
other in simple ways. They also show concern if their friend is hurting or
friends develop co-creative activities
by combining their ideas and developing newactivity variations,which become
their own versions of games. These collaborative creations serve to cement
the bond betweenfriends. Children involved in Level III friendships know that
friends will not tolerate a cheater or sore loser. Nor will they want to be
with someone who does not find ways of compromising and collaborating with them. By the close of this level, friendships become the main arena for social comparison, as children examine similarities and differences between themselves and friends as part of their initial identity development.
Children ready for a Level IV friendship
have begun to perceive of their relationships in a more self-conscious manner.
They recognize theimportance of considering others’ thoughts and feelings
as distinct from theirs. They become aware of the need to act in a manner that
will be attractive to a friend. They become interested in how they are perceivedby their peers and purposefully seek to create a good impression. They also know that to keep a friend you must provide something in yourinteraction that is meaningful to them, not just what you find interesting. Friends begin to become highly valued as collaborators in theworld
of ideas and imagination.
As typically developing children approach
middle school years, there is an emerging desire for friends who will share
ideas and internal emotional states. The child can now differentiate between
what is really felt as opposed to what may be overtly expressed. He becomes
interested in deciphering friends’ intentions as well as observing their
actions. The enduring preferences and opinions of friends become important. One element that clearly distinguishes the Level V friendshipis the knowledge that a friend should function as a reliable ally. Children describe friends as understanding, loyal, and trustworthy. An ally is someone you can count on; someonewho always takes your side (except when
the two of you are having a conflict). An ally will stand up for you if someone
is trying to hurt you. Friends must prove themselves as trustworthy,ready to
support and stand up for their buddies whenever called upon to do so. In this
stage children also learn the need for regular friendship maintenance such
as frequent phone calls.
By teenage years, typically developing
teenagers report that exchanging intimacy has become the crucial defining characteristic
of close friendships. Friends work hard to develop and maintain a strong bond
of trust and mutual concern. They know each other’s fears, dreams, strengths
and weaknesses and treat their friend’s vulnerabilities with acceptance
and respect. Teenagers view a friendship as something that exists apart from the moment, or from the individual’s current actions. They learn to examine their different friendships and determinewhich qualify as truly close friendships. They learn to accurately define the concept and to evaluate their friendships in relation to the level in which the friend has earned their trust. Teenagers realize that all friendships do not have the same value. There are people you can have fun with, but you may not share
common interests with. The very person who can be your ally andstand up for
you may not be sensitive when you talk about a fear. Not everyone can keep
a secret or provide constructive feedback.