The family is the primary social environment for children during the preschool years, but it is also the base from which they venture into new social contexts. The family is influential in several ways, particularly in the kinds of social behaviour it fosters, and with respect to the kinds of social contacts it offers for the preschooler (Dunn, Creps & Brown, 1996; Schaffer, 1996). Making friends Many researchers believe that the patterns of behaviour predominant in the preschooler’s home influence the behaviour the child manifests outside the home (Barth & Parke, 1993; Rubin et al., 1998). A good illustration of this principle is Russell and Finnie’s (1990) study of Australian preschoolers and their mothers in situations where the child had to join unfamiliar peers. The researchers found that the mothers guided their children towards strategies that affected the child’s acceptance. Mothers of popular children suggested ways in which they might join in with peers’ current activity, while mothers of children neglected by their peers were more likely to guide them to focus on the materials to hand. There is also evidence that children with a Type B (securely attached) attachment relationship in infancy tend to score higher on measures of social participation with peers at preschool (LaFreniere & Sroufe, 1985). In other words, aspects of the relationship with the primary caregiver are reflected subtly but influentially in how the preschooler begins his peer relations. Peer relations among preschoolers show continuity with early relations: they are selective. Although children of this age will play with a wide array of peers if given the opportunity, they do demonstrate clear preferences (Hartup, 1999). Individuals identify others with whom they play more frequently; they seek out each other’s company and they become friends (Hartup, 1999). These early friendships serve a number of important functions, including fostering the growth of social competence and providing sources of emotional support (Asher & Parker, 1989; Erwin, 1993). The value of these relationships is made clearer by the problems suffered by children who lack them. Unfortunately, some children do not establish friendships and are either neglected or rejected by their peers. Children who experience difficulties like this in the preschool years are at risk of continuing problems in peer relations and personal adjustment throughout childhood and even into adulthood (Coie et al., 1995). Learning about gender One of the major areas of social development during the preschool years is learning about gender. Even in the preschool years, children tend to segregate by gender and to show different behavioural preferences. Boys tend to be more physical and active in their play, while girls often like
to play with dolls (Maccoby, 2000). One theory is that these differences reflect biological pre-programming. We know that the young of other species – such as tadpoles – are pre-programmed to develop particular patterns of behaviour according to their gender, and these behaviours underpin later social and reproductive activities, such as patterns of aggressiveness or how they call out to attract mates (Emerson & Boyd, 1999; Summers, 2000). It has been argued that, in a similar way, evolution has designed human males and females for different functions (‘males as providers’, ‘females as caregivers’), and children’s play behaviours are early emerging signs of this ‘biological imperative’ (Hutt, 1978). An alternative view is that children are ‘shaped’ by the surrounding culture. Unlike tadpoles, human young receive a lot of direct and indirect advice from their parents about gender expectations. This could serve to reinforce some behaviours and extinguish others (e.g. by dressing daughters in pink or telling sons not to cry). Children themselves try to influence each other’s gender behaviour, too. Even preschoolers develop strong opinions about how boys and girls should behave. For example, boys might intervene to stop a peer playing with ‘girls’ toys’ (Bussey & Bandura, 1992). Finally, children also receive many stereotyped messages from the larger community and the mass media about gender role expectations (Durkin, 1985). But some developmentalists have argued that both of these explanations (biology versus environment) overlook a still more basic question: how does a child know that he or she is a male or female in the first place? This brings us to another aspect of gender role development – cognition, or the child’s active search for and interpretation of information about what is expected of males and females (Kohlberg, 1966). Unlike tadpoles, by the end of infancy most children know whether they are a boy or girl and can distinguish men from women (Thompson, 1975). During the next few years, they begin to appreciate how fundamental this distinction is. For example, preschoolers discover an interesting fact about gender that is not apparent to the infant: whichever gender one belongs to, it is going to be a lifelong commitment. While this seems obvious to an adult, it is not understood instantaneously by toddlers. Children learn the labels for male and female and begin to apply these during their third year of life (Fagot & Leinbach, 1993). Over the next couple of years, they build up an increasing amount of knowledge about what it means to be a male or a female (Martin, 2000), and this learning appears to be linked to broader cognitive development (Szkrybalo & Ruble, 1999). Rather than simply absorbing messages from parents or the mass media, by age four or five children can predict accurately the gender of a person stereotypically associated with a particular activity (such as fixing a car or doing the sewing) before they have actually seen the person (Durkin & Nugent, 1998). It is clear that, even at this early age, gender is a fundamental category around which the social world is organized, and that children are active in determining their own social experiences.