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Dr. Jennifer Neal, Michigan State University - Kids and Gender Assumptions

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Jennifer Neal of Michigan State University reveals the assumptions that many children have about friendship and gender.

Jennifer Neal is an assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University where her research addresses the influences of peer and teacher social networks on childhood educational outcomes. Her work has been published in a number of peer-reviewed journals and she holds a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois Chicago.

About Dr. Neal

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Dr. Jennifer Neal - Kids and Gender Assumptions

Elementary school children know who their own friends are. They also think they know who other children’s friends are. In our study, we wanted to understand how children make these inferences about others’ friendships.  We found that children believe friendships are far more segregated by gender than they actually are.

Specifically, we examined classroom friendships among 426 second through fourth grade children in five, urban public elementary schools in the Midwestern United States.  We asked children to report who they “hang out with often” (that is, their self-reported friendships) as well as who each of their classmates “hangs out with often” (that is, inferred friendships). Factors such as sitting near one another in class and sharing behavioral characteristics like both being good at sports predicted self-reported and inferred friendships. But, our findings related to gender were key.  Our study found that gender played a large role in both children’s own self-reported friendships and their inferences about others’ friendships. Children were nine times more likely to self-report being friends if they were the same gender. However, children were 50 times more likely to believe two classmates were friends when they were the same gender.  We did not expect gender to play such a strong role in children’s inferences about friendships.  This finding suggests that children believe gender plays a larger role in friendship that it actually does.

Even for young children, knowing who’s friends with whom is important for navigating the complex social world of classroom friendships. Knowledge of that world facilitates social adjustment and school functioning. On the one hand, using gender as a cue provides an easy, and often correct, basis for making inferences about others’ friendships. On the other hand, it can lead to errors in judgment, which may compromise children’s ability to engage in positive interactions in their classrooms.

Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.

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