Ask any parent what they worry most about their child and, depending on circumstances, the majority will come back with some type of variation on making friends, being friends and keeping friends. It’s not necessarily about popularity, rather we are all obsessed with ensuring that our kids are never lonely.
This used to be my thing. The first thing I would ask my children about their day was invariably, “who did you play with?” I think it stemmed from the fact that I needed to know who kept my child company when it wasn’t me. But, as we know, children learn so much from the subtle messages we unconsciously send and my emphasis on “who did you play with?” meant that my kids quickly learned that they had better have played with someone. That having someone was the most important thing as far as mummy is concerned.
Sending the right message
This was not the message that I wanted to send at all. Rather, I wanted my children to know that if no one wants to be your friend, it’s not the end of the world. Sometimes no one wants to play with you, sometimes everyone decides to play something that you don’t want to play and sometimes you just want to be on your own for a while. However it happens, you’ll always have yourself for company and frankly you’re the best company going. Teaching our children the difference between being alone and being lonely is very, very important.
Friendship is complicated and almost undefinable… it’s that reciprocated something that attracts one person to another. Some children have that something in abundance and forming friendships comes naturally for them. Others need another person’s something to mesh well with their own and then off they go together.
No matter which way we look at it, learning how to be a good friend is an important part of growing up. Good friends allow our children to experiment with social interactions in a familiar and comfortable setting. We practice life on our early friendships and in so many ways they help form the character we will become.
Sadly, though, you can’t choose your child’s friends for them. Whomever it is that will be doing all that character forming will be your child’s choice and theirs alone. If you think their choices are a bit suspect, you can gently steer them in another direction by arranging to have other children over to play, but I guarantee that it will not dim the power of the meshing somethings. Kids choose their own friends and we need to accept that.
We also need to accept that if “they won’t play with me”, it’s not going to be helpful to have mum come waltzing up in the playground and demand to know why. Friendships are complex and sometimes fleeting at a young age – learn to go with the flow and allow your child to find solutions to the problems that friendship can so often bring.
Stocking the right tools
Knowing what makes a good friend can really help a child out. We need to talk to our kids about how to care for and about their friends. Empathy is not necessarily a natural instinct for all kids and some will need more guidance than others. Remember too that adults care deeply about manners, but kids generally do not. By all means teach them to say thank you and a proper hello and good bye to each other, but don’t fret if they seem less than enthusiastic. They base their feelings of friendship on the fun and quality of the friendship itself, not the social niceties that accompany it.
Another important tool for children is the ability to evaluate friendships. Talk to them about how their friends make them feel and guide them towards solutions if the answer isn’t positive. Friendship is a constantly developing entity and it’s important to teach your child that it’s okay if a friendship naturally waxes and wanes or peters out altogether. Not all friendships are for life, no matter how hot they burn in the beginning. Knowing this from the beginning may help your child develop the necessary resilience for times when their friend decides to end the friendship sooner than your child may be ready for.
It will help if your child is given the opportunity to try out friendship with lots of different kinds of kids, so they can see first hand that everyone is unique and thus every friendship is different. Schools foster this learning well and you can support it by encouraging your child to invite different children over to play or to family events.
Modelling the right behaviour
Finally, the best possible way to teach your child about good friendship is to be a good friend yourself. Talk to your children about your own friendships – why you like the friends you do, what it is about them that makes them your favourite, your friendship’s history and what it is you like to do together. Seeing you enjoying friendships (and having a quiet word to your child about what is happening if things go pear-shaped as well) will help your child understand the role of friendship and the solid-gold value of friendship as well.
How do you help foster friendship in your children?
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This post was originally published on Kidspot.