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Definition: social development from The Macquarie Dictionary

Also, social evolution

the formation and transformation of social life, customs, institutions, etc.

(plural social developments)

Summary Article: Social Development from Encyclopedia of Educational Psychology

Children’s social development refers to the ways in which children grow in terms of their social skills, awareness of others, cooperative behaviors, and ways of approaching and interacting with others. Children’s social development has significant implications for later functioning in numerous areas, including emotional development, educational and employment success, and overall adjustment. Poor social development can place children at risk for poor relationships with their peers, academic problems, criminal activity, and mental health and adjustment problems. Thus, successful development socially is integrally important to children’s overall well-being.

From the moment they are born, children enter and have to begin learning how to navigate a social world. A graphic model of this is given in Figure 1. Early in life, children’s primary social context for developing is their immediate family. Later, as they develop, children become increasingly more integrated into other divergent social contexts, including their peer groups, school networks, professional networks once they enter the job market, and eventually their own romantic relationships. Throughout their development over time, they are also affected by more distal influences such as the community, society, and culture in which they are living.

Figure 1

Model for Social Development

Source: Adapted from Lerner, R. M. (1979). A dynamic interactional concept of individual and social relationship development. InR. L. Burgess & T. L. Huston (Eds.), Social exchange in developing relationships (pp. 271-305). New York: Academic Press.

Family Context
Parent–Child Relationship

Early in children’s lives, their primary social interactions are with their primary caregivers, typically their mothers and fathers (although this can vary within and between cultures), and these early social interactions set the basis for all interactions later on. Infants learn important lessons about what to expect from others and how to meet their needs through their repeated interactions with their parents over time. The focus of early social interactions for infants surrounds having their basic physical and emotional needs met. All infants vary in their emotionality and their need to be soothed, as well as their abilities to soothe themselves and be soothed by others. Differences in parenting styles, such as insensitivity, unresponsiveness, and inconsistency may lead children to be more emotional and have greater difficulty in regulating their emotions, because they do not know what to expect and are not having their own needs met appropriately. More emotional children may elicit more negative responses from their parents, and thus a negative reciprocal cycle is established.

John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth contend that infants’ patterns of interactions with their parents develop into patterns of attachment style. Attachment refers to the enduring emotional bond that develops between people. Parents who are sensitive, responsive, and consistent in meeting their infants’ needs over time are more likely to have infants who develop a secure emotional attachment. When parents are unable to consistently meet their infants’ needs, then an insecure emotional attachment is more likely to develop. Children who have a secure attachment feel confident that their parents are there for them when they need them and are able to successfully reach out to their parents in times of physical, social, emotional, or other needs and be comforted. On the other hand, children who are not securely attached may not feel safe or comfortable seeking help from their parents because they have not successfully had their needs met in the past. Instead, they may try to hide their emotions or needs. When insecurely attached children do attempt to seek out their parents for help, they may either outright reject their parents’ attempts at consolation or simply may not feel comforted by them.

Bowlby and Ainsworth argue that these early attachment patterns form the basis for all other relationships that children will develop. Children use their early attachment relationships with their parents as the interpretive lens through which to view, interpret, and respond to all other relationships. In other words, they develop internal representations or schemas about how relationships work based on their relationships with their parents. Levels of parent–child attachment security provide a global sense of emotional security that influences children in many broad domains. Children seek to recreate with peers, and later with intimate romantic partners, the relationship they had with a parent. Children’s levels of security and trust from their attachment relationships determine how open and trusting or wary and apprehensive they will be in approaching a new person with whom to develop a relationship. Thus, children who are securely attached are more likely to also have other positive, successful relationships with other people, whereas children who are insecurely attached are more likely to demonstrate difficulties in interacting with others. The patterns of interaction styles between parents and infants around their emotional needs set the stage for children’s future interactions with others.

As children grow older toward the preschool years, they begin to become more aware of social tasks and demands and are capable of initiating, maintaining, modulating, or ceasing physical acts, communication, and emotional expressions as required. Differences in social development may be attributable to differences in parenting. Children whose parents have been consistent in teaching them what is socially appropriate behavior versus inappropriate behavior may be more likely to conduct themselves in more socially desirable ways. Furthermore, children who have successfully had their emotional needs met early on are better at regulating their own emotions as they develop and thus have more success in modulating their outward expressions of emotions, such as their behavior and other communication, because they can better modulate their internal states.

Marital Relationship

The parents’ marital relationship is another key factor contributing to children’s social development. The quality of the marital relationship and the ways in which marital conflict is handled set the emotional climate for the family and the child. Marital conflict has both positive and negative elements, however, and depending on how it is handled, it can have either positive or negative effects on children’s social development. Heightened levels of negative conflict can influence children directly and indirectly. Greater conflict between parents may lead to greater disturbance in parenting, which can lead, in turn, to less emotional security and the ensuing issues described above.

Increased conflict can also directly influence children, leaving them feeling vulnerable and emotionally insecure about the stability of their family. E. Mark Cummings and Patrick Davies proposed an emotional security hypothesis, which extends the ideas from attachment theory and suggests that children can develop a sense of emotional security not just to the parent–child relationship, but also to the marital relationship. From their hypothesis, children react to the meaning of conflict itself, rather than just the presence of conflict, and the more they are exposed to it, the more sensitized they become to it over time. Witnessing more negative, hostile, and threatening forms of conflict is particularly detrimental to children’s sense of security about the marital relationship, whereas more positive expressions, including humor, support, and affection, promote greater feelings of security.

As in attachment theory, children’s sense of emotional security about the marriage can also influence children’s relationships in other realms, and children who are more emotionally insecure about the marriage have more social difficulties with other children. Children also learn ways in which to handle conflict and other social interactions based on how their parents interact and handle their own conflict and relationship. When parents engage in more destructive and hostile forms of conflict, children are more likely to hold negative views of peers and to act similarly with peers. For example, when children witness acts of aggression between parents, it results in greater physical aggression, such as hitting and pushing, toward their peers.

Other Family Relationships

The quality of parent–child and marital relations has significant implications for broader family functioning. Positive parent–child and marital relations are related to more harmonious sibling relationships, whereas discordant marital relations are linked with more negative sibling interactions. Other family relationships beyond the parent–child and marital relationship can also contribute positively or negatively to children’s social development. Some cultures have different definitions for what constitutes a family, and/or different traditions for living arrangements, all of which provide a larger family group with which children can interact on a regular basis. When there are negative parent–child or marital relationships, having strong, positive healthy relationships with other family members, such as grandparents and aunts and uncles, can help ameliorate negative consequences for children’s social development by providing other positive role models and sources of support and emotional security. On the other hand, when these relationships are also problematic, it can further exacerbate social interaction difficulties for the child.

Sibling and cousin relationships provide some of the first opportunities to practice emerging social skills in similar aged, peer-like relationships. Many tribal societies group children into age-grade peer groups, with whom they spend the majority of their waking hours, much like the school system in industrialized societies. Allowing children to work through their own disagreements with siblings is important for the development of appropriate social skills, and frequent intervention on the part of parents in sibling conflict can interfere with this process. Through these relationships, children learn more about appropriate social norms and deviance and begin to put into practice their knowledge of relationships learned from their parents as they develop specific social skills such as cooperative behavior, sharing, assertiveness, social conversations, empathy, problem solving, conflict resolution, and issues of acceptance and rejection. These are the skills on which children will need to draw to be successful in their interactions with peers outside of the family context.

Peer Groups
Peer Social Status and Friendships

In developing peer relationships, children bring with them the lessons they learned and the relationships they internalized from their family environment, which has a large impact on their acceptance versus rejection by peers and their development of friendships. Steven Asher and colleagues suggest that both acceptance and friendships are important for healthy adjustment and development. They define peer acceptance as the extent to which a child is liked or accepted by other members of the peer group. Well-accepted children are warmly and positively regarded by most of their peers, whereas poorly accepted children tend to be viewed negatively and disliked by their peers. Acceptance is thought to be a unilateral concept, which works in one direction. Friendship, on the other hand, is more bidirectional, and friends perceive and respond to each other as unique and irreplaceable. Acceptance is thought to be important to the development of healthy attitudes toward competition, conformity, and achievement, whereas friendship is key in the development of empathy and perspective taking, and it validates children in terms of their interests, positive self-views, and hopes. Children’s acceptance and friendship relationships are significant predictors of their long-term well-being and success, and children who are not successful in these areas are more likely to have adjustment problems (e.g., anxiety and depression symptoms), drop out of school, describe feelings of loneliness, display aggressiveness and/or submissiveness, and experience social ostracism and isolation. Estimates of the percentage of children experiencing serious difficulties with their peers are around 10%.

John Coie put forth a theory of child rejection. Assumptions of this theory are as follows:

  1. Social behavior is primarily responsible for rejection by peers.

  2. The difficulties of rejected peers result from the way they interpret specific social situations, the way they react affectively, and their acquired strategies for dealing with the situations.

  3. These factors emerge out of their socialization history and are largely shaped by the history of the child’s interactions with parent figures, siblings, and nonsibling acquaintances.

The theory suggests that there are four stages of social rejection:

  1. the Precursor stage, in which children come equipped with specific competencies and deficits relating to their eventual peer status;

  2. the Emergent stage, in which their interactions with a significant peer group result in the child being rejected;

  3. the Maintenance stage, in which rejection by a group becomes a stable and enduring reality;

  4. the Consequence stage, in which other aspects of the child’s adjustment deteriorates to the point of identifiable psychological disorders.

In the Emergent stage, children who are more aggressive and disruptive are more likely to be rejected, as are children who are more withdrawn and solitary. Children who become socially successful and popular take the time to figure out what is happening in a new group situation and attempt to match their behavior to that of the group, whereas children who are less popular are more likely to disrupt the group in part because they are not aware of what is happening within the group.

In the Maintenance stage, the rejecting group members begin to change in their behavior toward the rejected child, and in turn, the rejected child begins to change in his or her behavior toward peers, his or her feelings about him- or herself, and in the thoughts and expectations for the self and others. Being rejected begins to be a part of the child’s identity, and the child and others begin to respond now with new expectations. Once rejected, rejected children are more likely to be on the outside of well-established, coherent playgroups and even have trouble getting along with other rejected children. Rejected children describe themselves as being more lonely and having lower self-esteem, and when rejected children are also aggressive, they have concerns about the need to prevail against others, whereas nonaggressive children develop more concerns about being scorned and attacked by others.

In the Consequences stage, children who were rejected in middle childhood and preadolescence are at greatest risk for later disorder because childhood is the time for the preparation for intimate relationships later on. Rejected children have more academic difficulties, are truant more often, have more discipline problems, drop out of school at higher rates, and are left with fewer social skills to develop appropriate relationships later on in development.

Children who are lacking in the necessary social skills associated with acceptance and friendship have long been the focus of psychological assistance. Asher and colleagues review numerous behaviors that have been the target of interventions aiming to improve children’s social skills, ranging from broad general skills to more specific molecular skills: social problem solving, nonverbal communication, negotiation, entrance to groups, ability to cope with anger, helping behaviors, establishment of rapport, conversational skills, listening skills, self-control, ignoring of bullying and rejection, expression of requests and rights, ability to give and receive compliments, sportsmanship, and so on. This multitude of skills has taken place in various modalities, such as role-playing, modeling of successful peers, videotaped interactions that are reviewed and discussed, and actual interactions with peers. In order to have a successful intervention, it is imperative that children are able to practice the learned skills in actual interactions with their peers. The majority of these interventions are successful in increasing children’s peer acceptance. It is still not clear, though, why the behaviors learned in these interventions translate into greater success in the friendship realm.

Asher and colleagues suggest that in order to develop strong, lasting friendships, children need social skills that are adaptable across various settings and need to interact with peers in multiple settings to create more multifaceted and more invested relationships. Additionally, they need the skills and personality necessary to be perceived as fun, resourceful, and enjoyable companions; must have reciprocity in their relationships; must be able to engage appropriately in self-disclosure; must be able to express caring, concern, admiration, and affection in appropriate ways; must be helpful and reliable when their friends need them; must be able to manage minor disagreements successfully while preventing major conflicts from occurring; must be able to forgive; and must be able to handle outside influences (such as school and other children) on their friendship relationship.

Bullies and Victims

Although peer rejection places children at significant risk for the development of a wide range of problems, being the victim of a bully creates an even greater risk. Schwartz and colleagues conducted a study comparing two different types of victims of bullies: aggressive victims and passive victims. They also compared them to aggressive but nonvictimized children. They speculated that there would be different socialization histories among the different groups. Studying the three groups over time, they found that aggressive victims had preschool experiences with harsh, disorganized, abusive home environments; maternal hostility; restrictive and overly punitive parents; and higher interparental conflict. Furthermore, 38% of the aggressive victims of bullies were physically harmed by their parents and/or other adults. In comparison, nonvictimized but still aggressive boys were also exposed to high amounts of adult conflict and aggression, but had not been abused or exposed to harsh treatment by their parents. Finally, the passive boys showed no differences in socialization experiences compared to normal boys and also experienced less overall exposure to aggressive socialization factors. Their results thus support the importance of early socialization histories within the family in terms of predicting victimization by bullies later in life.

Just as there are various types of victimized kids, there are also various types of popular children. Surprisingly, it is not only prosocial (model) children who are popular; a certain subset of more antisocial and tough boys is also highly popular. For example, an intriguing study by Philip Rodkin and colleagues found that prosocial model boys were perceived by their peers as cool, athletic, leaders, cooperative, studious, outgoing, and nonaggressive, and were perceived by themselves as nonaggressive and academically competent. Overall, the model boys were highly popular. Tough boys, in contrast, viewed themselves as popular, aggressive, and physically competent, and they were more likely to be of a minority status, particularly African American. The tough boys were among the most popular and socially connected children in the school by their perceptions as well as by the other students’ and teachers’ perceptions. Thus, popular boys are a heterogeneous group, including both model and antisocial members. The authors argue that the peer cultures of the two different popular groups differed in important ways. Some minority status groups value behaviors such as academic disengagement and disobedience of school rules that are in opposition to dominant societal preferences. Alternatively, the aggression may be functional for those African Americans who are socialized in low-income and higher-risk communities, in that it is desirable and perhaps keeps them safe in such situations. The visible European American presence and values may make it difficult to be academically successful, popular, and prosocial without “acting White.” Thus, devaluing prosocial behavior may be a viable means for them of obtaining social status.

Broad Distal Influences
Distal, Not Distant

The effects of community, society, and culture historically have been discussed as “distal” because people do not typically have personal interactions with their culture the same way they do with their peers, and certainly not on a daily, moment-to-moment basis like they do with their families. Most people are not even cognizant of their culture, even in this self-aware global age. It is only when one is removed from one’s culture that one becomes aware of it, or, as in the case of the indigenous people of most industrialized nations, when one’s culture is surrounded (they might say “besieged”) by another.

The effects of community, society, and culture may well be distal, but they are not distant. They surround everybody every day and influence them in much the same way that fish are influenced by water. Social development takes place within a community, which exists as part of a society. What constitutes a community or a society, among many other things, is defined by culture. Although different societies may have different sets of rules to which one must acculturate, every aspect that makes up the very definition of social development—social skills, awareness of others, cooperative behaviors, and ways of approaching and interacting with others—is defined by culture and therefore can vary between cultures. Indeed, anything that has meaning that is shared among people is a result of culture: Meaning is defined by culture.


The concept of culture arose in the age of discovery as Europeans expanded across the globe and discovered that not everyone looked and acted like them. The original debate was between nature and culture, or “Are those brown people so different from us because God made them that way, or because they were raised in that heathen society?” The concept of culture has been widely accepted into the Western scientific world-view, but there is no standard definition of culture. For purposes of this entry, culture mostly refers to the set of values and beliefs that a group of people shares and with which the people make sense of their world.


In most Western cultures, there is a strong identification between nationality and society, but this is a concept that is defined by culture and is by no means definitional or absolute. This concept is so ingrained in Western society that it is seen by most members as a natural part of the world, rather than something imposed upon it by their worldview. A list of examples such as this—things that seem “natural” but are, in fact, defined by culture—could extend nearly indefinitely. Indeed, anything that is a value judgment is so defined by culture.

In other cultures, a society may consist of many villages or perhaps only one. A society could even be the totality of a culture, but this seems unlikely in the world today. The Iroquois Confederacy is a good example of an indigenous society that was much like our own, in that it was made up of many villages and even members of several different cultures. The Kurdish people today are a good example of a society that shares a culture but not a single nation, although the latter is mostly an artifact of the colonial era and soon may no longer be true.

Western society is multicultural, subsuming the members of many different cultures and subcultures. Members of different cultures become part of Western society mainly by immigration, and acculturation to Western culture varies across groups and individuals. The “melting pot” ideal of early 20th-century America has mostly been abandoned, and the more realistic “stew pot” notion—which allows ingredients to flavor the stew while still remaining recognizably distinct— has become increasingly recognized.

Subcultures are groups within the society that share a worldview and belief system that is different from the main culture. It is quite possible that some subcultures may not even consider themselves part of the larger society. Rastafarians and their reference to the Western societies they live within as “Babylon” is a good example of this phenomenon. How we can say that these subcultures are, in fact, part of the larger society is beyond the scope of this entry, but the short answer is mostly geographic—they are surrounded by and/or live within the main culture—and they also have frequent interactions with their non-subculture neighbors—but this topic is open to interpretation.


Community is usually defined as a fairly tightly knit group that has a sense of itself as a group, whereas a society is a much larger, loosely knit group that may consist of many communities and may also consist of subcultures that do not consider themselves part of the larger society. The model in Figure 1 refers to the social world of one individual, in which all of the overlapping peer groups discussed above comprise the community of each individual. All of the overlapping groups of all of the individuals in all of the peer groups comprise the actual physical community (but this would be an unreadable jumble of overlapping circles if they were represented in this format), and all of these communities together form the greater society.

Native American reservations are a rather unique subset of communities that defies most of the tenets set out here. They are physically within American society, but also separate from it—both physically and culturally. People who traverse the borders of Indian reservations come closest to actual interaction with culture as a real entity and not as an abstract concept. How one is defined as a person changes when one crosses that border. A man who is valued by his culture and revered as an omen of good fortune by the elders of the community can suddenly become an object of ridicule and scorn as soon as he enters White society. For most Native Americans, the transition may not be quite so dramatic as it is for this one individual, but would at the very least involve awareness of the differing ideals and norms between the two worlds they inhabit.

Such negotiations between and across cultures provide unique challenges for individuals who must make them. Such people have more than twice the challenge: They must not only learn two sets of norms, but they must be able to successfully make the transitions between them. Healthy development in such a difficult environment requires support of a unique quality. There is a reason that Native Americans have the highest suicide rates in Western society, as well as a variety of other mental health issues, not the least of which is substance abuse. Many of the problems endemic in Native American communities today are the same as the problems that arise in any context of poverty and rural remoteness, but there is the added layer of cultural differences and the transitions mentioned to make life more difficult.

Native Americans are unique within this discussion in no small part due to their history: They are not a subculture that has grown organically within the matrix culture, nor are they a piece of the stew thrown in by immigration; rather, they are remnants of the multiplicity of cultures that existed on this continent before an immigrant society moved in and pushed them to the fringes. They are similar to immigrant communities that choose to isolate themselves into enclaves of resistance, with the exception that their isolation was not voluntary, and the option of acculturation was not historically offered to them. It has seemed in the recent past that a pan-Indian identity may be rising, wherein the multiplicity of cultures may band together and gain strength as an identity unified by what it is not, but it remains to be seen if the differences of the past can be left behind.

Although Native Americans provide a unique example of particularly complex and often difficult cultural circumstances to consider in social development, the struggles arising out of their minority status, poverty, and cultural clashes are common across many different cultural groups. These broader issues, together with the more proximal individual and family factors, interact bidirectionally and are woven together over time in intricate ways, creating the fabric of children’s social development.

    See also
  • Bullying; Culture; Emotional Development; Family Influences; Friendship; Parenting; Peer Influences

Further Readings
  • Anderson, B. (1991). Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism (Rev. ed.). New York: Verso.
  • Asher, S. R.; Coie, J. D. (1990). Peer rejection in childhood. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Asher, S. A.; Parker, J. G.; Walker, D. L. (1996). Distinguishing friendship from acceptance: Implications for intervention and assessment. In Bukowski, W. F., Newcomb, A. F., & Hartup, W. W. (Eds.), The company they keep: Friendship in childhood and adolescence. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Booth, A.; Crouter, A. C. (2001). Does it take a village? Community effects on children, adolescents and families. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  • Bowlby, J. (1969) Attachment and loss: Vol. I. Attachment. New York: Basic Books.
  • Kopp, C. B. Regulation of distress and negative emotions: A developmental view. Developmental Psychology, 25, (1989). 343-354.
  • Sutton, J.; Smith, P. K.; Swettenham, J. Bullying and “theory of mind”: A critique of the “social skills deficit” view of anti-social behaviour. Social Development, 8, (1999). 117-127.
  • Tina D. Du Rocher Schudlich

    Joel D. Schudlich
    Copyright © 2008 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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