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When do I need to start worrying about my kids friends?

iStock_000017329893XSmallWhen I was around 12-years-old my best friend at the time, and I, got into a fist fight while on a joint family vacation to Lake Powell. Jeff (same name and coincidentally same birthdate and same middle name as mine) and I met through our mom’s who worked together and we were the best of friends for years. Within an hour after the dust up, we were back to being best friends.

A few years later Jeff and I were very excited to find out that we’d be attending the same school. But, when that happened our friendship changed significantly. He found new friends, as did I. In fact, one of his friends, by happenstance, was a mortal enemy of mine at the time. While Jeff and I remained friendly throughout the rest of our school years, we were certainly not the “besties,” we once were.

I would later learn that this is a normal dynamic. Nothing to be too concerned about from a parental perspective. It’s just life. So when should we being to worry?

In early childhood, friendships start once social interaction begins, and once babies can crawl (Thompson, O’Neill Grace, Cohen 32). The crawling allows the baby to move towards or away from people they like or dislike – before that, they are stuck with whomever they are plunked down next too.

The social chemistry may remain a mystery, such as why two babies gravitate immediately towards each other, but the evidence is there – friendships begin early. Other essential ingredients for friendship are the ability to share (Thompson, O’Neill Grace, Cohen 36), and the ability to resolve conflict (Thompson, O’Neill Grace, Cohen 44). In fact, this is just good life advice and without these skills, its hard to make and maintain friendships.

In addition to moral and social support, friends also help us learn the social rules, like whether its okay for a boy to cry in public and whether our clothing selections are consistent with what’s in and what’s out (Thompson, O’Neill Grace, Cohen 50). Parents must never underestimate the power of the friendships our children make, particularly between the ages of 7-12 (Thompson, O’Neill Grace, Cohen 51). Friends are the “team,” that they are going to face adolescence with.

Up until the age of 10, children are very loyal to their parents (Thompson, O’Neill Grace, Cohen 54). However, as they approach 9, 10 and 11, they start to see their parents’ flaws in comparison to other adults and may even become critical of their parents approach to raising them. Kids are also pretty good about keeping the families secrets – in fact, that’s often an unspoken qualifier for a friend, is the ability for them to keep your families secrets. Here’s a little clue mom and dad – your kids know most of your secrets already.

There are laws that govern life. Many of these laws stem back thousands of years and come from our basic survival instincts – these laws particularly apply to children.

  • Law 1: Be like your peers (Thompson, O’Neill Grace, Cohen 80). Well this is scary from a parents perspective and makes us want to lock our kids inside until they are about 30. However, You, as a parent, love peer pressure and we are all hypocrites when we tell our kids not to succumb to peer pressure. The truth is that not only do we want our kids to succumb to peer pressure, we still pay attention to it and succumb to it ourselves – in fact, just the other day I showed up a bit underdressed to a dinner party – I made an excuse about being cold, excused myself and went out to my car to grab my sport coat, then tucked my shirt in on the way back to the restaurant. As a parent, we just want a certain KIND of peer pressure – the peer pressure we deem good, not bad. Kids want to be like other kids for the same reasons we want to be like other adults (in relationships we care about). It gives them a sense of belonging, of rapport and connection and of safety.
  • Law 2: You must belong to a group (Thompson, O’Neill Grace, Cohen 82). We all hunger for identity and closeness – we will naturally gravitate towards each other and our kids are no different. I remember arriving a day early for the US Coast Guard’s Officer Candidate School. The other early arrivers quickly sought each other out, we formed a group and started recon-ing the place, our situation, the rumors we’d heard.
  • Law 3: Be in or be out (Thompson, O’Neill Grace, Cohen 84). If you think this one is BS then think about all the industry trade organizations, or hobby groups that are out there. We want to feel like we’re “in.”
  • Law 4: Find a place in the social hierarchy (Thompson, O’Neill Grace, Cohen 86). As long as there’s been recorded history we tend to configure ourselves in a social ladder (Thompson, O’Neill Grace, Cohen 86) and we attempt to assign others to rungs we feel they should be on – and we often use cruel or intimidating methods do carry out this law. Boys puff up their chests and assume postures and head to the weight room to build muscle tone, while girls gossip about each other, give each other dirty looks and refuse to groom one another when they are not feeling close (Thompson, O’Neill Grace, Cohen 87).
  • Law 5: You must play a role (Thompson, O’Neill Grace, Cohen 90). Every class has a leader, a clown, a suck-up, a jock, a flirt – heck, sounds like the cast of The Breakfast Club. Well, there’s a reason that movie resonated with a generation – it was true! I’m not saying we must assign roles, I’m agreeing with the authors that roles are naturally assigned and not always with the consent of those being assigned a role.

The fact is that our kids adhere to all the same social rules that we ourselves adhere to in our adult lives. The age that friendships really start to form are between 7 and 12. Our kids are able to pick their own friends, make assessments about who they want to spend time with and also see different social structures and family situations. And the rules they begin to follow in friendships and in groups, are the same as our own in the workplace and in our family social structures.

Thompson, Michael, Catherine O’Neill Grace, and Lawrence J. Cohen. Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children. New York: Ballantine, 2001. Print.

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