As indicated earlier, when preschool children gather in groups, aggression is inevitable, particularly when adult monitoring of children's play is lax or inconsistent. Aggressive behavior - or even the threat of aggression - has powerful impact on the organization of children's groups. The interaction between Carlos and the other children at day care illustrates how dominance relationships evolve.

(Click on Carlos' photo.)

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Although these three children may be peers in one sense of the word, they are clearly not each other's equals with respect to power and influence. In the competition for access to the treehouse, Luis deferred to Roberto, but both boys dominated Carlos. Unfortunately for Carlos, this result has become routine: Carlos is dominated by all other children in his group in competitions for resources and in decision-making situations.

How can we explain these differences in the distribution of power among children? Primates in natural settings have provided some insight (Carpenter, 1942; Jolly, 1972; Hinde, 1974). Primates routinely threaten and enact aggression in conflicts over territory and resources. Over time, the aggressive interactions among members of the group establish a dominance hierarchy, a systematic ordering of power relationships from the most to the least powerful member. When firmly established, the dominance hierarchy minimizes aggression by allowing each member of the group to anticipate the outcome of potential aggressive interactions with each member of the group. For example, when one monkey encounters a higher ranked monkey, fighting is unnecessary since both already know the winner.

If the dominance hierarchy works for primates, could it also serve the same purpose for young children? In a classic study of dominance relationships, researchers (Strayer & Strayer, 1976) observed preschool children’s use of physical attack (biting, chasing, kicking, and hitting) threat-gestures, and struggles over objects, noting whether each aggressive act was followed by submission by the victim. They concluded that dominance hierarchies exist in groups of young children, just as they do in primates. A later study (Strayer & Trudel, 1984) showed that dominance hierarchies can be demonstrated in groups of children as early as the second year of life.

Our review of research on the components of social competence suggests two distinct patterns: First, socially competent children are popular among peers, develop stable and intimate friendships, resolve conflicts without resorting to aggression, and are sufficiently assertive to avoid being dominated by others. Second, socially incompetent children are rejected or neglected by peers, have difficulty making friends, are in frequent conflict with peers, are frequent perpetrators or victims of aggression, and either dominate or are dominated by peers. These different patterns emerge in a social context that includes peers, families, and community influences such as day care and preschool. We will now consider the critical role of the family and other caregivers in promoting social competence in young children.


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