The Childhood Roots of Adult Social Personality

peer relationships

Halfway through fifth grade, I moved with my family from Charleston, South Carolina to a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The change of schools came at a delicate time.

Fifth and six grade were big for me, socially. These were the first years that I recall navigating strategically in relation to groups of peers, trying to figure out how to end up on the inside of groups that I wanted to to be part of, initially succeeding, and then failing. The failure hit me hard and, I believe, still reverberates in my life today.

Moving from Charleston to Sewickley

In Charleston, I was a solid, if inconsistent member of the most popular group of boys in my class. We played foursquare, joked easily with our teacher Ms. Perry, and rode bikes down Meeting Street together. I was invited to all the birthday parties I wanted to go to.

In retrospect, I probably enjoyed some popularity due to my status as the only “northern kid” in the class, an object of some curiosity. At the same time, I was an inconsistent member of this tribe because I often preferred to hang out alone with my best friend, Preston. We worked on electronics projects together, and once schemed to run a wire between our houses, about four city blocks apart.

When I moved to Sewickley, Pennsylvania, a small town outside of Pittsburgh, my social status took a hit. I was made what you might call an adjunct member of the group of boys that I wanted to be a part of. I could hang out with them sometimes, but I was not included in the most important gathering at all: when they hung out after school with a few of the most popular girls in our class. 

The rejection stung. After a year or so of trying to work my way in—and failing—I made friends with a boy one year older. We did yearbook and technical theater together, and became close friends. He introduced me to his friends, including one who became my first girlfriend. 

Elementary school experiences can reverberate for decades

I formed strong social ties at that school, but I never again put a lot of effort into trying to work my way into the most popular groups of kids. In fact, I became suspicious of this kind of quest and came to see “popularity” as a warning sign. In high school and college, I avoided throwing myself fully into any one group. I preferred the opportunities, freedom, and perspective that came with “adjunct” membership in multiple groups.

This pattern has continued through my adult life. I consciously cultivate partial membership in multiple groups, trading off the pleasure of closer and more stable connections for the personal enrichment and perspective that comes from participating in a wider range of social environments. It works well for me.

I believe my adult social personality has its roots in my experience in fifth grade. What if I had been fully accepted into the “cool boys” group in fifth grade—the ones who hung out with the most popular girls? My social life might have evolved in a very different way in middle and high school. If nothing else, I might have learned to dress better sooner!

Were she alive today, Judith Rich Harris, the late psychologist and author of the book The Nurture Assumption, would agree with me. Harris believed that children’s experiences with peer groups—especially acceptance or rejection in late elementary school—have a great deal of influence on adult personality, much more influence than parents have.1

Peer influence cuts both ways

What’s harder, she says, is to know exactly what the impact of a particular kind of social experience will be. Sometimes a child will benefit in the long-term if they are rejected by a particular peer group. Sometimes they will be worse off. It’s hard to know.

My advice to you: given the power of peer relationships—particularly group acceptance or rejection—be curious about your child’s social status and have your antenna up for warning signs. Full-fledged rejection can scar children seriously. Membership in some groups can send your child down an ill-advised path, just as membership in other groups can influence them in positive directions.

The older your child gets, the more influence peers have. You can’t replace the role of peers—and hopefully don’t want to—but you can help your child avoid long-term damage that can come from toxic situations, and you can look for opportunities to help your child connect with groups that can change their lives for the better.

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The Childhood Roots of Adult Social Personality
  1. Judith Rich Harris, The Nurture Assumption.