Certain children, at a young age, have an unmistakable charisma and confidence that make them stand out among their peers. "But a child's status can change over time," says Thomas Berndt, Ph.D., head of the department of psychological sciences at Purdue University. New leaders may become valued by their peers. Leadership is based as much on context as on personal attributes: The ringleader on the playground may take a backseat to someone else in the classroom.
AGES 5 TO 7
"Clearly, children arrange themselves in power hierarchies from the very first moment they begin interacting," says Ritch Savin-Williams, Ph.D., professor of clinical and developmental psychology at Cornell University. The ones on top in the early elementary-school grades are usually boys and girls who are naturally outgoing but who also possess crucial social skills, such as the ability to come up with fun ideas, capture other children's attention, and organize their peers into activities.
"Leadership isn't genetic, but certain personality traits are," says Savin-Williams. "There are children who are very shy and awkward and retreat from a group. Other children are very assertive and direct others: 'You go over to that side, I'm going to throw the ball up, and you catch it.'"
Beginning around age 5, children learn that bossing other children around will diminish their influence. Instead, social skills, such as helping and caring for others -- or at least appearing to -- become essential elements of leadership and popularity. "The basis for this approach is recognizing that others have similar wants and desires. So the more skillfully you operate within the social group, the more you can get what you want," says Patricia Hawley, Ph.D., a researcher in the psychology department at Yale University and an assistant professor at Southern Connecticut State University. She cites this example from one of her studies. "Two five-year-olds had decided that they were going to take turns catching fish in this little game that we had provided for them. The dominant child said, 'Let me help you catch your fish,' and then proceeded to catch the other child's fish. 'There, we caught your fish,' he said, 'now it's my turn,' and he used this tactic until he had caught most of the fish for himself."
AGES 7 TO 9
As children mature and gain a fuller appreciation of the subtleties of social behavior, those who continue to try to dominate others through aggression are often shunned, while those who are socially skilled become respected and admired.
Still, the social hierarchy remains less rigid and well-defined at these ages than in the later elementary-school grades. Gradually, however, children's various strengths and talents begin to play a growing role in determining the leaders in different settings, such as the classroom or the playground. Caryn Rudofsky of Old Westbury, NY, says that her older daughter, 8-year-old Melissa, has realized that "the leaders are mostly the girls who are good at sports," says Rudofsky. "They have a lot of confidence."
As children become more concerned about the opinions of their peers, there is also more pressure to conform. But children who aren't leaders don't simply fall into lockstep. "Melissa doesn't tell people what to do, but she won't go along with what they want either," says Rudofsky. "She'd rather do her own thing, and if they want to come along, fine, and if they don't, that's fine with her, too."
AGES 9 TO 12
More than ever, children at these ages become aware of how they and their peers measure up in various fields of endeavor -- especially sports, academics, and the social realm. "By the sixth grade, they have no problem figuring out who the leaders are; the hierarchies of power and influence are readily apparent, and may be formally recognized in school or organizations," says Jeffrey Parker, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Penn State University. "The good students win awards and get celebrated. And guess where that leaves everybody else?"
Savin-Williams conducted a study among campers, ages 11 to 13, in which he discovered that "the boys knew almost immediately -- within hours or days of spending time together -- who the leaders were and what their own place was within the social hierarchy of the group."
Physical maturity -- specifically, pubertal development -- at these ages can set apart certain children, making them leaders if they have other social attributes. But as other children catch up -- grow taller, stronger, more muscular, and more mature-looking -- the titans of seventh grade may fall into the middle ranks by the end of high school.
In the social arena, leaders are often those children who begin to engage in cross-gender relations. Of course, not all leaders are necessarily the most-popular or well-liked children. "Children may respect certain acknowledged leaders but wouldn't want them as a friend," observes Parker. "But if they wanted someone to speak up (to a teacher or to the principal), they'd think: I'm sending this guy; he's not my best pal -- I wouldn't trust him with my secrets -- but he can inspire or rally others or articulate our position."
Adds Berndt, "Leaders change depending on their skills and the tasks the group confronts."