A recent study conducted by the Faculty of Education at the University of Turku has revealed that the number of social contacts a child has at 13 months can predict the number of friends they will have by age four. This research, emphasizing the impact of early social interactions, underscores the significant role that such encounters play in shaping a child's future peer relationships.
The study, led by University researcher Marita Neitola, research coordinator Piia af Ursin from the Faculty of Education, and Päivi Pihlaja, professor of educational sciences at the University of Eastern Finland, employed a survey targeted at parents. This survey assessed the number of peer relationships children had at two stages of their development: at 13 months and again at four years old.
According to Neitola, previous research has often intertwined the social networks of children with those of their parents, usually focusing on the social relationships of older children. The current study aimed to delve into the social connections of younger children and the networks of their parents, an area not extensively explored in their region.
One of the striking findings was the evident role of parents' social networks in their children's social lives. "The wider the social network of the mother, father, or their partners, the more friends their children had, both in daycare and at home," af Ursin noted.
The study also indicated that children of higher-educated parents tended to have more friends than those of less-educated guardians. Researchers believe that more educated parents might utilize services offered in early childhood education and at home more effectively than others. However, the family's income level did not significantly influence the number of a child's friends.
Researchers define social networks as meaningful connections outside the family, including friends, relatives, and acquaintances, who provide various forms of support and interaction. Ideally, these networks not only support parental home education but also further the development of children's social skills and peer relationships.
"Parents value activities that enrich their children's social experiences. Different social environments accumulate children's social capital, which should be accessible to all children," stated Neitola. She emphasized the need for cooperation between early childhood education and homes to create positive environments that foster children's social and emotional skills.
This research forms part of the multifaceted "Keys to Good Growth" research project, a collaboration between the University of Turku, Åbo Akademi, and the Southwest Finland Wellbeing Region. Initiated in 2007, the project involves around 1,800 children born in Southwest Finland between 2008 and 2010, along with their families. The long-term goal is to track these children's growth and development from infancy into adulthood, finding ways to support the well-being of children and families.
One focus of the "Education, Training, and Learning" subproject is the link between parents' and children's social networks, specifically how these influence the quantity of a child’s friendships. This focus is driven by prior findings on the importance of parents, families, and their social circles in shaping children's social development.