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Growing up

Peer acceptance: When children want to belong to a group

Peer groups influence a child’s development since nursery school. Other kids’ acceptance plays a dominant part in growing up. Exposing your children to different environments and helping them process their experiences will make them stronger individuals.

Do you remember how important it was to have those shoes when you were a teenager? For my generation, you either belonged to the Nike’s or Dr. Martens’ club. Clothes and music were such a big deal. Slang made us so cool. Peers often had a bigger influence on us than our parents. Your mom and dad seemed not interesting enough – they didn’t even try to impress anyone around them!

For kids peer acceptance is invaluable

I used to connect peer acceptance with adolescence until I read this:

“Recent research shows clearly that […] some three- and four-year-olds are already having trouble being accepted by their peers. Early problems with peers have negative consequences for the child’s later social and emotional development.”

Source – the Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development

So, even in kindergarten, the group dictates the rules: what’s good and bad. There is peer pressure even at the age of 3. You can be uncool if you haven’t heard of a singer or your dress isn’t fashionable enough. One day these kids will become adults, and your child will still have to cope with them.

Children crave approval and have a strong need to impress others. A peer group is there to prepare a child for adult life. As it develops friendships, a child learns how to communicate and negotiate. It discovers the ways to solve a problem or a conflict. It works in a team and competes against others. In these groups, children learn about themselves and develop ethics. Therefore, a child’s self-esteem, emotional and social development depend on its relationships with children its own age.

Now let’s see what factors influence a child’s position in the group.

What defines peer acceptance?

Peer acceptance is measured by two factors:

  • the group: how much it accepts the child,
  • and the child’s friendships: how many and how strong they are with other kids.

For someone’s social competence genes are crucial. However, environmental factors are also important:

  • the parenting style. It shouldn’t be too strict, or too permissive either;
  • the quality and variety of the child’s interactions. It is best that the child develops friendships in several different environments: within the family, at school, in sports, on the playground, etc.
If your peers accept you, life is a carousel ride
If your peers accept you, life is a carousel ride

What are peer-accepted children like?

These children generally have the following qualities:

  • empathy – they understand other children’s gestures and feelings;
  • responsiveness – they respond to other children directly. They say other children’s names, keep eye contact and touch them to get attention;
  • they can explain well what they are doing and feeling;
  • flexibility – they will compromise with other children. Peer-accepted children subordinate to the group and listen to others even when they want to change the course of the action within the group.

The effects of peer-acceptance later in life

Regardless of age, the group instinctively understands the child’s behavior and reacts to it. The reactions are not always morally right but they are the result of precise interpretation. Many years later you can feel the consequence of these little actions. Peer acceptance in childhood makes you happier and more successful when you grow up:

“Aggressive children are often rejected by their peers […] Having friends in early childhood appears to protect children against the development of psychological problems later in childhood […] Peer acceptance is associated with better psychological adjustment and educational achievement.”

Source – the Encyclopedia of Early Childhood development

As this Encyclopedia further states, children who are popular have fewer problems later in school. Teenagers whose peers accept them adjust more easily when they grow up – emotionally and socially. 

“Peer-accepted children may be shy or assertive, but they often have well-developed communication skills […] By contrast, rejected children tend either towards aggressive, antisocial behavior or withdrawn, depressive behavior. Antisocial children interrupt people, dominate other children, and either verbally or physically attack them. Depressive or withdrawn children may be excessively reserved, submissive, anxious, and inhibited.

Popular children tend to have characteristics associated with both competitiveness and friendliness.“

Source – Health of children

What about children who can’t be a part of the group?

Being different can damage a child’s self-esteem if it belongs to a different race, culture, or has some physical or mental disability. To make up for the bad peer treatment, parents and teachers should give extra social support to such kids. In school teachers can give these children an important part in a role play. Also, teachers should emphasize the children’s talents to decrease negative self-comparison. And they should praise every effort to reinforce their progress in social behavior.

Parents can say and do several things to comfort their child:

  • Discuss and write down your child’s special gifts.
  • Talk about why it is beautiful to be yourself. For inspiration find famous role models who are different than other people.
  • Explain that changing yourself to impress someone else does not make you happier.
  • Tell your child: “Children tease you because they can’t understand there is someone who is different from them.“
  • “Stay true to yourself, and be a good person. It is hard, but this way you will become the best you can be.“

Source – Inspire My Kids

A child shouldn't be embarrassed because it is different from its peers - "Kites rise high against the wind, not with it." - Winston Churchill
A child shouldn’t be embarrassed but proud to be different from its peers

Also, it is advisable to teach all children how to cooperate with and respond to little outsiders. When peers reject a child, it can feel very lonely and dissatisfied. Peer rejection can cause future problems of quitting school, substance abuse, and mental health problems.

We all need praise and approval. To prove their own worth, children will crave validation from peers. As they gradually build strong relationships with their friends, they prepare themselves for an independent mature life. Give small children new opportunities and provide support to process their peer experiences. Help them become more stable people emotionally and socially. Parents, caretakers, and teachers have an active role in helping children master communication skills and negative feelings. This know-how is more valuable for one’s well-being than the ability to yield profit.

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