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Two Worlds of Childhood

Urie Bronfenbrenner

As the foregoing example indicates, the segregation is not confined to the young. Increasingly often, housing projects, or even entire neighborhoods, cater to families at a particular stage of the life cycle or career line, and social life becomes organized on a similar basis, with the result that, at all levels, contacts become limited to persons of one’s own age and station, In short, we are coming to live in a society that is segregated not only by race and class, but also by age ...

It doesn’t take children very long to learn the lesson the adult world teaches: “Don’t bug us! Latch on to your peers!” And, as our data indicate, that is exactly what children do. In a recently completed study by John C. Condry, Jr., Michael L. Siman, and Bronfenbrenner, 766 sixth grade children reported spending, during the weekend, an average of two to three hours a day with their parents.6 Over the same period, they spent slightly more time than this with groups of friends, and an additional two to three hours per day with a single friend. In short, they spent about twice as much time with peers, either singly or in groups, as with their parents. Moreover, their behavior apparently reflects preference as well as practice. When asked with whom they would rather spend a free weekend afternoon, many more chose friends than parents. An analysis of sex differences revealed that, although both boys and girls spent more time with peers, girls associated more with parents (especially mothers) during weekends than did the boys. Also, the boys associated more with a group, the girls with a single friend.

In this same study, the characteristics of predominantly “peer-oriented” and “adult-oriented” children were compared, and an attempt was made to answer the question of how the peer-oriented children “got that way.” An analysis of data on the child’s perception of his parents, his peers, and himself led us to conclude that the “peer-oriented” youngster was more influenced by a lack of attention and concern at home than by the attractiveness of the peer group. In general, the peer-oriented children held rather negative views of themselves and the peer group. They also expressed a dim view of their own future. Their parents were rated as lower than those of the adult-­oriented children both in the expression of affection and support, and in the exercise of discipline and control. Finally, in contrast to the adult-oriented group, the peer-oriented children report engaging in more antisocial behavior such as “doing something illegal,” “playing hooky,” lying, teasing other children, etc. In summary, it would seem that the peer-oriented child is more a product of parental disregard than of the attractiveness of the peer group – that he turns to his age-mates less by choice than by default. The vacuum left by the withdrawal of parents and adults from the lives of children is filled with an undesired – and possibly undesirable – substitute of an age-segregated peer group.

Condry, J. C., Jr., Siman, M. L., & Bronfenbrenner, U. (1968) Characteristics of Peer- and Adult-Oriented Children. Unpublished MS., Department of Child Development, Cornell University.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1970) Two Worlds of Childhood. Harmondsworth: Penguin Education. pp. 100 – 102.

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