Social relationships and their developmental significance

Editor’s Note: This wonderful article strongly influenced my interest in the field of youth mentoring and I am grateful to Laura Yoviene for summarizing this classic for the Chronicle. 

Hartup, W. W. (1989). Social relationships and their developmental significance. American Psychologist44(2), 120.


Social relationships are an essential framework for children to learn important social skills. Both vertical attachments (relationship with someone with greater social power, for example, parent-child relationships) and horizontal attachments (relationships in which both members have equal social standing, for example, peer relationships) contribute to the development of social knowledge and skills. These two distinct relationship types have different trajectories and offer overlapping, but distinct, benefits to the child.


This article is a conceptual framework for the development and significance of children’s relationships with parents, particularly their mothers and their peers. Although the author did not collect independent evidence to support his claims, his ideas are based on years of knowledge, observation and collaboration with other prominent researchers in the field of social relationships.


Relationship Development – Children can experience change and growth as the result of their experiences within a social relationship. Additionally, the child’s own development can influence the relational context. For example, a child who develops a secure attachment to his/her mother would have a different relationship than if the same child were to develop an insecure attachment to their mother. This child-related factor necessitates that the mother act differently within the relationship to meet the child’s needs.

Relationship Patterns – The first relationships children form are with their primary caregiver, most often their mother. It is only when children are about 2 years old that they begin to develop true peer friendships. As children grow older, their interactions become more sophisticated allowing for the use of higher order social skills such as cooperative problem solving.

Parent-Child Relationships – Mother-child and father-child relationships are mutually exclusive in that the quality of one relationship does not necessarily impact the other. Both the mother and father can have an individual impact on the child if their relational styles differ from one another. In general, mother-child relationships are considered to be closer and more affectionate than father-child relationships.

Parent-Child Relationship Pattern – These relationships begin as strong attachments the child needs in order to thrive through the receipt of food, comfort and shelter. As a young child ages, they gradually lessen this attachment as they become more comfortable being away from their mother for longer periods of time. Eventually they are comforted by just knowing their mother is available, even if not present. This developmental shift is accompanied by the parent setting more goals for the child and scaffolding, or assisting, the child in accomplishing these goals. This downward sharing of knowledge is a feature of this type of vertical relationship. As the child enters adolescence, the parent-child relationship dynamic shifts once again from the parent providing a lot of help and guidance to the child taking on more responsibility and independence.

Children’s Peer Relationships – Friendships are unique from parent-child relationships in that they are self-selected relationships marked by an equal standing between the two individuals involved. The individuals demonstrate shared interests and mutuality. Young children tend to form same-sex friendships as they seek individuals with similar interests which tend to be more gender segregated at young ages. Children who are friends demonstrate greater reciprocity than non-friends do, and are more likely to effectively reach compromises when only one child can be successful. While friends are also more likely to be in conflicts with each other than with a non-friend, these arguments tend to be less heated and don’t have lasting negative impacts on the friendship.


The “success” of these vertical and horizontal relationships are critical for children’s social and emotional development. This is important not just for developing social skills and relationships with others but also in the formation of the child’s self-concept of how they fit into the social world. Children who are considered more troubled have a more difficult time entering and sustaining friendships causing them to have fewer and lesser quality friendships than non-troubled children. Difficulty with friendships could lead to negative outcomes such as peer rejection which can in turn lead to greater problems later on in life.

There is overlap within and between these vertical and horizontal relationship styles for the opportunities to learn the social and emotional skills necessary to succeed. For example, even though most children might learn about cooperation from playing games with their peers, children can learn those same skills from their interactions with parents or siblings. This means that the absence or poor quality of any one of a child’s relationships does not indicate that the child will have problems down the road. The experience of positively functioning relationships, such as a successful mentorship, is a large accomplishment and is promising for the child’s social skills and future social relationships.