I believe that you, as a parent, can employ some principles that can provide a ballast for your child—and yourself to navigate these turbulent waters of friendships.
- Remember that you’ve already made it through your school-age years. When your child is in pain, it will often trigger the very same pain you experienced when you were the same age. Being left out or rejected can take us back so quickly that it can be hard to know if the pain we feel is really about our children—or about us. Be aware of what’s stirring inside you, as Melissa Trevathan talks about so beautifully in our DVD Curriculum, Raising Boys and Girls. You can be empathetic and compassion to their feelings, but remember they are most importantly that—their feelings.
- Remember that children are learning what being a friend means. They won’t immediately know what a kind response looks like, how to be inclusive, or what it means to forgive. As a parent, you are the most important teacher of these principles. You teach them, first, in what they see in you relationally. Model the characteristics you hope to see in them. Practice forgiveness—with your spouse, your peers, and even your child. Model gratitude. Speak to others with kindness. Let them see that you value relationships, both inside and outside of your family.
- Give them opportunities to take another’s perspective. Empathy will not necessarily come naturally to your child, either. Help them learn to see another’s perspective. If your child pulls your dog’s hair, ask him how he think the dog felt. If you see a homeless person on the street, ask her what she thinks it might feel like to be that person. What does it feel like to be different characters in movies or on tv shows? If a friend of your child’s is going through something difficult, ask questions to help her see what life might feel like from her friend’s perspective.
- Don’t be more easily offended than they are. Your child will come home in tears one day from school because a particular friend has hurt her feelings. And then, two days later, will want to invite that very same friend over to spend the night. Childhood friendships often work this way. Again, they are learning. You can ask questions about what it means to be a good friend, and what would she or he like to do differently net time. But, even the friends that will go on to be lifelong friends will hurt each other from time to time. If you think back on your childhood friendships, you might remember a little more of how it feels.
- Seek out and be open to feedback from other adults in your child’s life. Other adults will see how your son or daughter interacts differently than you will. They will often be at their best—or kindest in front of you (although not always to you). His teacher may see him say hurtful things to other boys. Her coach may tell you that part of why she doesn’t feel included is that she stays on the outside of the group. A friend’s mom may call and say that your daughter has hurt her daughter’s feelings. These adults’ voices are vital to a true understanding of the social life of your child. Ask their opinions, and be willing to hear them, even if it’s not the version you were hoping for.
- Hold your child accountable. If you catch your child bullying or hurting another, stop him. Explain to him what is concerning about his behavior and give consequences, if appropriate.
- Value your child’s friendships. Make your home a kid-friendly place. Invite other children over, individually and in groups. Offer to help with field trips and parties. Coach his basketball team or volunteer with her girl scout troop. As Bailey said, “friendships will be the very most important thing” in his or her life, at times, during his growing up. As you get to know and value his friends, you also value him.
From kindergarten through his senior year, your child will be learning who he is and how that person connects to the world around him. Because of your role as a parent, you are his most important teacher. Tell him the truth in love. Because of your unconditional love, you can speak potentially hard truths to him that no one else can. And because of that same love, you can comfort her in a way that no one else can when others have hurt her. Ask her about her friends. Play a game of pick-up with his buddies. Drive carpool and invite them over. Listen to the way they talk to each other. And then just listen to your child. In the way you listen to your child and love the other children in his life, you will enhance not only his friendships to others, but also strengthen a friendship that the two of you will share for a lifetime.