Friendships are life giving relationships that brighten our lives with companionship and fun. Unless they don't...the art of making and keeping friends is a bit of a balancing act sometimes. Children may need some help developing the skill set required for choosing, making and keeping friendships. Let's look into how we can help our children through these sometimes stormy seas.
I can remember my first friends so clearly. Those friendships, I have come to realize that those two people had a tremendous impact on my life. Thanks to social media, we have recently reconnected after over forty years and hundreds of miles. What joy this has brought to me! I am so glad that those friendships were encouraged during our childhood years. We learned young the value and the rhythms of relationships.
As your children begin to develop relationships beyond their immediate family, probably around the age of four or so, you can help them learn to behave like a friend. Sharing, taking turns, using kind words and kind hands are all the obvious skills. It is a very good idea to supervise play dates at this age and be ready to intervene and correct behavior that is out of bounds. Consistency and repetition of the rules will help children play well with others.
At this young age, your children are probably making friends with the children of your friends or you are making friends with the parents of theirs. Either way, there is a bit of commonality and you have all the control over who your child plays with outside any group care setting they may be part of while you work. In other words, you choose their friends at this age. It is very important that you are choosing wisely and well. Friends are important.
Consider the widely held wisdom that posits that we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with. Motivational speaker Jim Rohn is typically credited with expressing this. I have recently read that many human behavior experts say that this statement is not only true, but that it doesn't go far enough.
Some are saying that we are not only the average of the five people that we spend the most time with but also the five people that each of those spend the most time with. Whew. That carries our circle out a very long way. That makes me think that choosing friends is truly important. They influence us and our children far more than we may think on the surface.
Think about it in a practical way. To what extent do children ages 5-18 influence each other's taste in fashion? How about favorite super heroes or animated programs? What about music? Study habits? Speech patterns? Be realistic with your answers. As Americans, most of us want to believe that we are independent thinkers who are not influenced by others and our children are the same. But we absolutely are highly influenced by those people we spend the most time with. In other words, our friends. We need to help our children choose their friends carefully. Here are a few tips:
Be aware of how your child values themselves after a visit with a friend. If your child is suddenly less confident about something look into it more deeply. Suppose, for example, your child comes home despising the outfit that was their favorite the day before. A few questions may reveal that a "friend" thought the shirt looked stupid. Your adorable child abruptly begins to refer to themselves as "fat". This is often a result of a "friend's" comment. Find a way to get to the bottom of it without criticizing the friend. Continue to remind your child of their value and worth, and begin to limit contact. If it can be done tactfully, instigate a conversation with your child and their friend and explain to them that friends encourage each other and lift each other up.
Watch how your child treats others. It is often difficult for parents to be objective about their children, but notice how your child behaves toward other children. If your child is big for their age, is their size intimidating the other children? Does your child get away with taking a toy from another because the other child is afraid not to give it up? Ask questions. Does your child have a low tolerance for frustration? Are they able to wait their turn? If not, plan for shorter play dates, and work on developing those skills in your child. Every child develops differently and has different temperaments. Work to help your child grow and develop well. Be intentional about teaching the good habits that lead to good friendships. These do not happen naturally.
Older children may need a lot of guidance. Have open and organic conversations with your children as they mature. Ask them periodically what they think are the most important characteristics of a friend. Ask them to make a list of character traits and then ask them how well they measure up to those and how well they think their friends do. Ask them how their friendships are going. Some friendships are fine for elementary school, but maybe not middle school.
Friendships are such an important part of your children's lives. They add joy and fun experiences, give them a buddy for school and other activities and give them someone their own age to share adventures and confidences with. Encourage good friends. Monitor to make sure that the friendships are healthy and your child is not being damaged by a relationship. It happens. You are your child's advocate and guide. Stay tuned in!