Getting along with people who not our relatives is an important skill required beyond age of two. This ability to make and maintain friendships becomes increasingly important through life and once adolescence is reached, it starts defining personality as well.
Urbanisation, stress on education, sense of acute competition and smaller families make friendships vital for psychological survival. Being a good friend is not easy. Enjoying someone’s company and making them feel the same about you for months and years is a tough job. Fortunately, we are born with some good abilities to make friends.
Friends are almost always of same age, same developmental stage with similar abilities, interests and difficulties. This is THE major reason why parents cannot be friends. Parents who desperately try to be their child’s friend actually end up being pathetic.
Though parents play a very important role in initiation and disruption of friendships in early life of a child. Till adolescence arrives, friendships are temporary for most children and they are easily disrupted by change of residence, school, tuition classes, parents’ disagreements, etc. Though children get distressed due to these friendship breaks, they get over it with relative ease. After all such mental flexibility is very hallmark of healthy childhood.
How can parents help children to develop a healthy spirit of friendship? Here are some thoughts applicable if you have a young child less than 10 years old. Rules change a lot after that age. –
1. Children are naturally attracted to each other and given opportunity, they will make friends in school, playground and family/social functions. Many times they will be friendly with kids of people you don’t like. Children can become “best friends ever” within minutes and spill their most intimate secrets to their friends. For many parents, this is a cause of alarm and they move in quick and swift to “help” the child. This is usually unnecessary. Playing together, sharing interests and sharing information/secrets is how friendships build up.
2. Though friends are of similar developmental stage, their qualities and development can differ greatly. Children instinctively choose a person who is okay for them, if they make a mistake they can correct it as well. Parents “helping” kids to “choose” a friend to further their own development are actually distrusting child’s innate wisdom and getting into a selfish friendship mode. This causes great distress to kids. This is very apparent when mothers accompanying a pre-schooler to playground are seen actively directing their play and relationships. Your friends’ children may not be necessarily your child’s natural friends and there is no need to take it personally.
3. When at home, conversations about friends can quickly become coaching sessions. This is a great danger. Children talk to parents about a lot of things and everything is not necessarily noteworthy. Most times kids are just sharing, looking for a patient and sympathetic ear. Looking at their talk as a cry for help and offering relationship advice is an easy trap that is best avoided.
4. Telling children to get even, dominate, split, manipulate friends is another version of the same and always highlights parents’ personality / relationship difficulties more than child’s real needs.
5. Using comparison with friends as “motivating tool” for your own kids is an excellent friendship killer. Children start detesting kids with whom they are often compared. They even break up friendships and try to choose counterpoint relationships. This is very sad and wasteful.
6. When a child is happy, energetic, smiling, sweating and excited after meeting a bunch of friends, it is an indication that kids are enjoying each other’s’ company and parental intervention is best avoided here.
7. Friendships will come packaged with their own share of fights, disagreements and heartbreaks. When children are in conflict with each other, their emotions are all over the place, their words and stories show the extreme intensity of their emotions and need to rally parental support. Getting into the helping mode and fighting child’s battle directly or indirectly is again a sure way of damaging friendships and undermining your child’s defence mechanisms. Providing a patient ear, offering a warm drink/food, some time off from friends is all that is necessary. Unless physical violence is involved, getting into the thick of battle is a bad idea for adults because then child is clearly marked as trouble by friends. It is important to keep cool when other kids’ parents are losing their bearings. These temporary fights between kids are known to create lifelong animosities between parents.
I have tried to outline some common issues and need of change in parent’s attitude to help a child develop healthy relationships. As I have noted above, when children become older i.e. pre-teens, friendships take on a very different developmental role. I will write a separate blog about that soon.