Peer groups are vital in supporting a child's development, offering support, reassurance and establishing good behavior throughout their journey to adulthood. From a young age, children will want to be accepted by their peers and will act accordingly to be liked. These peer groups include family members and friendship groups.
From ages 2 to 5, children have a dramatic increase in their interaction within peer groups, according to Laura Berk, professor of psychology at Illinois State University. According to psychologist and author G.C. Davenport, preschoolers learn mainly through observation. A child will model his behavior on his peers, including family members and other children, regardless of whether he has friendship with these peers. Davenport argues that if a child sees another peer group, such as his siblings, being polite and sharing their toys, they are likely to copy that behavior themselves.
School-age peer groups have many functions, including fostering social skills and behavioral patterns, according to Kevin Durkin, professor of psychology at the University of Western Australia. Durkin said he believes that during middle childhood, children will form strong attachments to peers and copy their behavior to create bonds with the group. So, if a child has friends who take school work seriously, it is likely the child will copy their behavior and also want to perform well at school to fit into the peer group and to be popular within the group.
During the teenage years, pressure to conform to a peer group's behavior and identity is more than at any other time in life, according to Berk. A "good" teenager might commit an act that goes against his usual behavior, such as smoking cigarettes, to gain acceptance among a "bad" peer group. There is then a danger that the teenager might alter his behavior unless supported and accepted by positive peer groups such as family members of other friendship groups.
Family Versus Friendships
Throughout childhood, the role of the family in shaping behavior co-exists with the influence of friendship peer groups. But Berk said she thinks it's the family and parents who have a lifelong influence on a child's good behavior, including kindness and the desire to help others. However, school peers are more influential on short-term good behavior, such as performing well at school in order to impress and reinforce their position in the peer group.