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Making Friends: An ecological perspective on the breakdown in social relations of today's children

Children's sense of interpersonal relations begins with family interactions, namely, the mother, father, siblings, grandparents, and others. In other words, the initial interactions of children begin with those who share the same DNA.

Eventually, these relationships lead to more autonomous and social relationships, such as with the neighbors, and children of the same age. When the child enters preschool, kindergarten and grade school, the relationships become centered around peers. In addition, they also build interpersonal relationships with the adults in their lives, such as the teachers and caretakers at the schools.

There appears to be something innate about children's social development and interactions with peers and adults. Perhaps we can categorize this as a "program" (see previous messages for the meaning of "program" and examples of other "programs") of the heart.

When the child is first born, s/he expresses much interest in the human face. By two months of age, the child is able to look around, pick out of a group of people, the primary caretaker, and communicate through cooing and eye contact. By six months, s/he is able to smile at a person of interest, and by ten months, s/he is able to point, touch and even kiss. Observing these behaviors of "making friends" in the baby, it is quite obvious that the behaviors are not something that was learned, but rather something programmed from the beginning.

Upon entrance into preschool or kindergarten, the child's interaction with others becomes based upon the rules of group life (shudan seikatsu). At first, each child does not bother with others and engages in play by oneself, but eventually begins to interact with peers. The relationship with these peers, then, becomes critical in the identity of one's being.

At three years of age, physical development and language development have been established to an adequate level necessary for play, so the children begin to become conscious of others and relate to their friends appropriately. The play, then is observed as being initially parallel play (e.g. playing in the sand box) but eventually develops into something more centered on a division of roles, such as playing hide-and-seek. I would like to point out that these types of play are more cooperative and institutionalized types of play.

Toddlers at play are usually least sensitive about likes and dislikes of play and are not gender biased. Once the child enters school, s/he becomes influenced by school curriculum and the types of play become quite different from the ones observed before entering school. In addition, an emotional variation become entangled in the process of play with certain peers and thus, begins the group formations often seen in upper elementary school grades and on. One begins to stick with friends who share similar opinions and become more distanced from or even avoid others.

In Japan, the reason for many of the children to become friends is, close seating arrangements in school, proximity of residences, similar school routes. However, these space-related reasons are not the only reasons for friendship formations. Other reasons include affective reasons, such as nice, sweet, and a good person in general. Gradually, with the development of intelligence, physical age and personalities, the children becomes engaged in teamwork and tend to help each other with many things which eventually leads to formations of peer groups.

"Gangs" are an extreme example of these sorts of peer group formations. In other words, seven or eight people gather to form a group, which has institutional characteristics and is active in its various activities. It also has a leader and each person in the group is designated a certain role. Sometimes their activities may become antisocial, but not always.

As I have written above, children become to form peer relations in accordance with their age and development. These formations of friends and family members are not identical with each person nor are the type of groups the same. Each group and type of relationship is unique but all lead to psychological and social development.

Children adjust their "program of the heart", which regulates their formation of peers. They make relationships through initial interactions with family and later with friends of preschool, kindergarten and grade school. Through these relationships, the children learn cultural norms, group harmony and other social factors of relating to people. Even the fights seen in young children are a part of training for forming peer relationships.

However, we are currently seeing a breakdown in this process of making friends. Primarily, this breakdown is being manifested by the appearance of serious acts of ijime (bullying), criminal activity seen in younger children, and peer relations established through print club stickers and pagers. I believe it is critical to explore these new peer formations in the context of child ecology.

Children live in the micro-world of their families and these families exist in the society. Tying the two together (families and society) are institutions such as the school (including preschool and kindergarten). Thus, there is a cyclical model of interactions between the family, school and society in which the social culture is formulated. Children are thus wrapped up in this storm of interactions, which is, in effect, the model of child ecology. Consequently, it seems appropriate to consider this issue in the context of child ecology, since the behavior of children is ecologically determined by the family, school, and society.
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