Children Playing

The one thing that I’ve learned in the short span of time that I’ve been a parent is that being a parent means feeling helpless a lot of the

time – in fact, these are the exact words used by Michael Thompson, Catherine O’Neill Grace and Lawrence Cohen, authors of Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children (p 7). 

Most of us know how important friends are, particularly in a young person’s life. Friends make a new class or school  bearable, friends make us feel better when others reject us and friends provide us with comfort that we’re not defective, abnormal or social outcasts. I often say in my classes that a good friend is someone  whom you can call and say “I’ve got a problem,” and they show up at your house with a baseball bat and a shovel. Well, maybe that’s a bit extreme, but you get my point. Friends have your back and most importantly, friends understand us and accept us for who we are.

That is the central theme of friendship.

For our kids, a school day can be filled with the widest range of human emotions and any given day can be very painful for a child (Thompson, O’Neill, Cohen xii). But should we jump in when our kids are having a bad day? If we do, are we committing the sin of being helicopter parents and never allowing our children to learn vital coping skills they will need in life?

“The ongoing paradox is that some children experience intense pain and grow from it, while other kids are crushed by their peers,” (Thompson, O’Neill, Cohen xiii). There are times as parents when we must jump in and there are times when we must stand back and allow our kids to develop their own coping skills – the hard part is knowing which one to do and when.

Some tips:

  • Children fear adult attempts to fix their social lives (Thompson, O’Neill, Cohen 8). Remember this before you step in.
  • We cannot step in and fix it every time, or else our children won’t know how to do that for themselves  (Thompson, O’Neill, Cohen 8), and then you’ll wonder why they are 40 and still living in your basement (I added that last part)
  • Listen sympathetically, stay confident and provide opportunities for kids to connect with others (Thompson, O’Neill, Cohen 8)
  • At the beginning of their lives, children should have a secure attachment (read: safe and comforting) with an adult – usually this is the mother. This is the “model” for future human connections. Children with secure attachments just have less baggage to deal with as an adult – research has shown they have lower rates of mental illness, enjoy successful peer relationships and do well in school (Thompson, O’Neill, Cohen 25). This doesn’t mean that kids that had insecure attachments are doomed, they just may need a little more help (Thompson, O’Neill, Cohen 17-19)

What interferes the most with a parent’s wisdom in the area of our kids social development are the painful memories of our own childhood (Thompson, O’Neill, Cohen 11), and trying to protect our kids from the same painful emotions. But we need to know that back when our kids were babies useful equipment was installed such as sociability, confidence and resiliency – these are qualities that once achieved, won’t easily be lost as they venture into the realm of friends (Thompson, O’Neill, Cohen 28) and eventually into life itself.

If you ever left your kid at daycare, kindergarten, your parents house, or anyplace without, they were eventually okay. There may have been crying at first, but I’m sure you stopped after a few minutes – and so did your kid. Usually, a friend helped ease the transition in the case of daycare or school or camp. These are the building blocks of sociability, confidence and resiliency.

Throughout this series I’ll take a look at how friendship and its definition changes throughout our kids lives and when (according to the authors) to step in and when to let them fall. For now, I remember the 1987 movie, Can’t Buy Me Love, starring a very pre Dr. McDreamy, Patrick Dempsey. There is a scene near the end where Dempsey (playing in the high school nerd role – told you it was before McDreamy) is telling off the jocks and reminds them of a time before they splintered into the official high school hierarchy – a time when they were all little kids and they were all friends back then.  Times do change and so do our kids friendships.

Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children. New York: Ballantine, 2001. Print.


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