Relationship with Friends

This article is a translation of
Benesse Educational Research Center, 1998. Tomodachi kankei Monogurafu shogakusei nau, Vol. 18, no. 2. Tokyo: Benesse Corporation. (Supervising Editor is Prof. Masashi Fukaya of Tokyo Seitoku Junior College)


Since the first volume of "Monogurafu shogakusei nau," the relationship that children have with their friends has been a subject of interest for us. While we have wanted to make a questionnaire on the subject of relationships among children for some time, it has been difficult to identify problems in concrete terms. It is often pointed out that children do not play as much as they did in the past. Bullying has also been a problem for the past ten years and adults today worry about the lack of close relationships among children and the fragility of these weak interpersonal ties.
Against this background, one difficulty in making this questionnaire and conducting the survey was due to a shift in the definition of "close friend." In the past, a close or best friend pointed to a particularly strong bond that one might have with two or three people. Recently, however, when children are asked how many close friends they have, some answer that all of their classmates are close friends. Others claim to have twenty or thirty close friends. What is the difference between a "close friend," "ordinary friend," and "classmate"? Do children have close friends nowadays? If relationships are weak, does the term "best friend" have any meaning? To what extent do children have emotional ties with close friends? What do they do together and what will they do for each other? This questionnaire and survey arose from a discussion of such questions.

(1) Subject: Relationships with friends
(2) Focus: Relationships with friends, focusing on classmates and cliques.
(3) Topics: Relationships in class, whether children belong to a clique, the number of people in a clique, the atmosphere in the clique, the reasons for being in a clique, how they play with friends, and friendships within a clique, etc.
(4) Date: February, 1988
(5) Sample population: Elementary school students in the fifth and sixth grades in Tokyo, Chiba, Saitama, Aichi and Gifu Prefectures
(6) Method: Distribution of questionnaires at schools
(7) Number of respondents: 1,566 (791 fifth graders and 771 sixth graders, 834 males and 728 females, 4 unknown by sex and school grade)


The children who see themselves as sociable have many friends, are cheerful and find it easy to make new friends right away. However, is this self-portrait really objective (Table 1)?

Children have fewer siblings so they have less opportunity to play with friends of their siblings (Table 2 and 3).

About half of the children go to cram schools or take private lessons of some kind. 70% to 90% of them responded that they have close friends there. But can we say that they are really "close friends," not just "friends" (Table 4)?

Many friendships are with classmates. The children characterize their classes as having a "good atmosphere." However, they do not think that their class works well as a team or that everybody gets along well. They do not think the students listen to the teacher very much (Table 5).

A child has about 5.7 good friends in his or her class on average, 10.7 ordinary friends and 7.3 classmates with whom they are not so close. He or she finds it difficult to get along well with 4.1 classmates (Table 6).

Each class has 5.8 cliques on average. 2.1 male students and 1.9 females do not belong to any of the cliques in a class. Among males, 10% do not belong to a clique, and this is slightly higher than the corresponding percentage of females (7%) (Table 7, 8, and 9).

Cliques are relatively fixed but not totally exclusive (Table 10, 11, and 12).

Many children belong to a clique because it is fun to be with close friends. However, some of them do so because they feel lonely if they don't or to avoid being bullied. Those who cited such reasons seem willing to put up with a bossy leader figure in the clique, if there is one (Table 13, 14).

Children spend time with close friends at recess and chat a lot but fewer children spend time with friends after school (Table 15).

Many children think that promises are more important than ties with friends and not many would dare to help a friend if it meant disobeying their parents. Few children would cover for a friend if it meant being blamed themselves. This indicates that their bonds of affection are not very strong (Table 16, 17, and 18).

However, the children responded that if a close friend were being bullied, they would try to stop it or at least they would not join in the bullying. Leaving aside the question of what they would actually do, this would seem to indicate some kind of intimate bond (Table 19, 20).

Children did not belong to a clique because they were not able to join one, because none of the cliques appealed to them, or because they did not want to lose their freedom. Some of them want to join by all means while others do not want to join at all (Table 21, 22).

90% of the children have a "best friend" and 67% of them are in their clique. They are more willing to protect a close friend than a classmate they do not like when a rule is violated (Table 23, 24, and 25).

(1) How Children See Themselves
Table 1 indicates how the children in the survey see themselves. Among the positive aspects that children gave themselves was that they have many friends (85%), and being cheerful (82%) followed this. The third characteristic was being good at making friends (68%). The sixth-ranked characteristic was being good at making friends laugh (48%). As for personal characteristics, although 64% of the children said that they were not good at studying, 56% said that they were good at playing sports and 54% said that they were good at following trends. This gives us a portrait of a child who is cheerful and sociable, open to interpersonal relationships, and flexible. However, this sort of self-portrait seems to differ somewhat from traits that children are said to have these days: overly sensitive about interpersonal relationships, nervous about relationships with friends, and susceptible to malicious bullying. Do children these days really have so many friends and are they very sociable?

(2) Friends in the Neighborhood
As Table 2 indicates, 50% of the children in this survey have either a brother or a sister. In other words, half of them have only one "peer" in their family. However, as is shown in Table 3, almost 60% rarely or never play with friends of their siblings. 39% of the children sometimes play with them and only 4% of the children play with them almost every day.

(3) Friends Outside School
In Table 4, one of the questions asked if they play with friends they have known since childhood. Only half answered yes (45% of the boys and 51% of the girls). Table 4 shows the extent to which children have close friends outside school. 49% go to cram schools, 46% take lessons of some kind, 33% are members of local sports teams, 47% participate in local clubs for children, and 24% go the recreation center for children. Children who answered that they made friends in such extracurricular activities were 77% of the children who go to a cram school, 69% who take lessons of some kind, 91% who participate in local sports teams, 73% who have joined local clubs for children, and 42% who go the recreation center for children. In a sense, such extracurricular activities may be a "meaningful place" for children to make friends these days.

(4) Friends at School
Table 5 indicates how children characterize their classes. More than 90% of the children strongly agree or agree that their classes have a good atmosphere. Besides this, they do not rate their classes favorably. Together with the 10% who strongly agree that everybody gets along, only 47% of them think there is good teamwork. In the last statement in Table 5, less than 40% strongly agree or agree that everybody listens to the teacher, but only 4% strongly find this to be the case. It is often the case that good classes have good leaders, but less than 60% think that they have good leaders in their classes. On the other hand, 30% say there are students who bully others in their classes. How do children rate the teachers of these classes who lack good teamwork? 58% think that their teachers are very nice or rather nice. 20% of all students responding think that their teachers are very nice. From this, we see that classes have a nice teacher, but do not have good teamwork.

According to Table 6, a child has about 5.7 good friends in his or her clique on the average, 10.7 ordinary friends, and 7.3 classmates with whom he or she is not very close. He or she finds it difficult to get along well with 4.1 classmates. As is shown in Table 6, roughly speaking, they are friends with 60% of their classmates, but are not close or do not get along with the remaining 40%. As such, children in the same class do not seem to share a warm or close atmosphere.

(5) Cliques in Class
As is shown in Table 7, there are 5.8 cliques in each class on the average. 30% of the classes surveyed have one to four cliques; another 30% have five to six cliques and a little less than 30% have seven to eight cliques. A little more than 10% of the classes have nine or more small cliques.

In most cases, there are two or three cliques of only boys and three or four cliques of only girls. 70% of the classes have only one clique with both boys and girls. On the average, a class has 3.0 cliques of only boys, 3.3 cliques of only girls, and 1.7 cliques of both boys and girls. The question here is whether there are children who do not belong to any of the cliques in a class. In half of the classes, every child belonged to a clique, and in half, there were children who were not members of any clique. (Table 8). In general, each class has one boy and one girl who are not involved in any cliques, but some classes have many such children. On the average, 2.1 boys and 1.9 girls do not belong to any cliques.

Table 9 asked whether the children belonged to a clique in class. More than 90% of both boys and girls belong to a clique. On the other hand, slightly less than 10% do not belong to a clique. Leaving aside the question of closeness, cohesiveness and stability within these cliques, we can see that almost all the children have some friends with whom they enjoy activities. Table 10 shows that 63% of the children are satisfied with the current number of friends in their clique. In Table 11, 65% replied that there was never a change in the clique make-up. That is, members of a clique are relatively fixed.

However, in Table 12, only 8% of them answered that they did not want to include a new friend in the clique and 25% said that they would accept a new member; two-thirds said that it would depend on the new friend. Table 13 indicates why students belong to cliques. Naturally, 70 to 80% answered that they join a clique because they have close friends in the clique or because they get along well with its members. Meanwhile there were a few negative reasons: they do not get bullied (13%) and it is better than being alone (30%). More girls than boys said that they belong to a clique because they get along well with the members or because it is better than being alone. As is shown in Table 14, more children cite reasons that indicate dependency on others such as it is better than being alone or they can learn a lot about trends. In particular, among those children who feel that there is a bossy leader in their clique, more than 20% choose to remain because it is better than getting bullied. This clearly seems to indicate a loneliness or fear of getting bullied these days.

Table 15 shows how students spend time with clique members. First of all, when do they play together? 70% of them always play together at school during recess, and very small percentage of students say they rarely or never play with clique members. More than 80% say they always chat with clique members, and it seems they spend recess chatting or playing with members of their clique.

However, after school, the time spent with clique members declines substantially. Less than 40% always or sometimes stay at school after class to play with friends in their clique, but only 6% say they always do so. Only 18% of them play with these friends after returning home. 56% sometimes play after school at home with friends in their clique, but the percentage is much lower than those who always play during recess at school.

Given that they are busy on weekdays, do they play with friends in their clique on Sundays or holidays? As Table 15 indicates, fewer children play with friends in their clique on Sundays and holidays than on weekdays. It seems that elementary school children spend time with their family on Sundays and holidays rather than playing with friends. Almost 70% do not go to cram schools or take private lessons with friends in their clique. Children who go to cram schools or take private lessons have another network of friends, which is separate from their clique at school. Children used to do homework together in the past, but now only one-fourth always or sometimes do so, and of this percentage, only 2% always do their homework with friends.

In this way, while children these days play with close friends who make up their clique at school, they do not necessarily continue the same relationships after school. They are busy going to cram schools or taking private lessons, or even studying at home. It appears that relationships with other members of their clique are confined to school.

(6) Ties between Clique Members
Table 16 asked what students do if a clique member asks them to play when they have promised to play with a non-clique friend. We asked this question because we assumed that they might break the promise with the non-clique friend to play with a member of their clique with whom they have stronger ties of friendship. The issue here is whether they give priority to the promise or to the closer friendship. As indicated, one-third of the students give priority to their ties with friends in their clique, namely, they would break the promise to play with a non-clique friend to play with a friend in their clique. On the other hand, the remaining two-thirds think that the promise is more important and they would not break the promise to play with a friend in their clique. Thus the ties of friendship among members of a clique do not seem to be so strong that a child would cancel a previous engagement made with a non-clique friend.

Table 17 asked what the students would do if a friend in their clique asked to borrow 1000 yen because the friend had lost some money. We assumed that the children might be severely scolded by their parents if they told them about lending money to a friend, and wondered what would be more important: obeying their parents or the friendship. As indicated, only 25% said that they would lend the money without letting their parents know and many responded that they would not lend the money and explain why not.

Table 18 asked what the students would do if a friend in their clique breaks a window and they are blamed. Only one-fourth of them said that they were willing to take a scolding from the teacher for the friend and many answered that they would tell the truth. The children, both boys and girls, value moral judgment over friendship.

Table 19 asked what students would do if a friend in their clique is bullied by some other clique. Only 10% to 20% answered that they would do nothing for fear of being bullied themselves. Almost 90% say that they would try to stop the bullying even though it might cause them to be bullied. Irrespective of what they would actually do in such a situation, they are willing to take action to protect their friends even at the cost of some disadvantage to themselves.

In relation to similar bullying behavior, we asked what they would do if a friend in their clique is ignored by others in the clique. The results are shown in Table 20. About 30% answered that they would just follow others in the clique by ignoring the friend. The majority, or about 70%, said that they would talk to him or her even if it meant they might be bullied themselves. This shows some degree of willingness to endure adversity since they could be bullied themselves.

(7) Children Who Do Not Belong to any Cliques
Some children do not belong to any cliques. According to Table 21, the main reason for not joining a clique is that they somehow feel they could not join even if they wanted to (37%), followed by reasons of personal choice such as being afraid of losing their freedom or none of the cliques appealed to them. This may be a kind of false pride, but only less than 10% admitted that they were not accepted by these groups. Asked if they wanted to join any of these cliques (Table 22), 19% said they wanted to join very much and 12% said that they wanted to join a little. Contrary to our expectations, they do not seem to be very eager to join cliques. One-third said that they did not care and another one-third did not want to join very much or at all.

(8) Ties between Best Friends
Tables 23, 24, and 25 focused on the bonds of friendships students have with their best friends by asking them whether they would tell the teacher if a friend broke a rule. First of all, we classified friends into "best friends," "ordinary friends" and "classmates they do not get along with." We asked them what they would do if a friend brings something to school that is not allowed, and wondered if they would tell the teacher, caution the friend, or pretend not to notice. We tried to find out whether they gave priority to following the rules or their friendship. There appears to be a big difference in whether they would tell the teacher or not and this depends on the type of friend involved. If the friend breaking the rule is a best friend, only 6% would tell the teacher. In case of an ordinary friend, the percentage doubles to 12% and in case of classmates they do not get along with, the figure jumps to 38%. The difference between girls and boys is particularly interesting. In all cases, boys give a higher priority to the rules.

Many children, or about 60%, would caution a best friend or an ordinary friend. In case of a classmate they do not get along with, more children would tell the teacher and fewer children (35%) would caution the student breaking the rules and perhaps this is because they do not want to bother. Here is also a difference by gender; more girls would caution the person than boys. 63% of the boys would caution their best friend while the figure for girls is 71%.

Another point worth mentioning is that about 27% of the children would pretend not to notice regardless of the type of friend or classmate involved. Do they want to protect the friend or merely avoid getting directly involved?

Nowadays, an increasing number of children are portrayed as being very anxious about peer relationships. It is also believed that their friendships are not very strong. Contrary to this portrayal, the survey showed that children have close friends or belong to a clique and enjoy friendships. However, from the viewpoint of the authors, this is not a satisfactory situation. In order to establish a basis for good interpersonal skills when children grow up, it is very important for them to experience good relationships with others based on trust and love during childhood. Fewer parents of this generation were actually raised during a time when children played all day and many do not see children who do not play as a problem. Furthermore, adolescents and adults do not like to get together as often as they did in the past, and socializing is seen as a form of intrusion and a source of pressure. It may be necessary to encourage and support a social life in the community after school to promote relationships other than those at school and in class and to explore ways to make these relationships more enriching.
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