Read an Excerpt
You, Your Child, and Your Child's Friends
What Parents Should Know About Children's Social Lives
Once upon a time, a child's world of peers tended to be misunderstood, undervalued, or even largely ignored. A generation or two ago, mothers and fathers didn't worry all that much about their children's social lives. While parents genuinely hoped for the best, as long as a child wasn't getting into fistfights and his school grades stayed decent, the friendships he formed or didn't form were not a matter of great interest. Teachers and other adults who worked with children likewise remained largely silent on the subject of peer relationships.
That picture has changed. Today it's not unusual, for example, for a child to be referred for professional help not only because of failing grades or an inability to pay attention in class, but because of bullying and other aggressive behaviors. The gloves are off. Most parents are attuned to subtler indications of social and emotional difficulty as well-recognizing when a child has few friends or the friendships don't last, or she seems to feel disliked by other kids.
This changing picture is all to the good. From my own experiences in the world of child-development research, I can state unequivocally: Your child's friendships are tremendously significant. At times in the passage from toddler to teenager, his friends may take center stage. More, perhaps, than any other individuals, they will have the power to cause your child to feel truly happy or absolutely miserable; more even than Mom and Dad, your child's friends may be the people he turns to for feedback on how to get through the day.
But friends are critical not only because having them makes life more pleasant. Our research has demonstrated powerful connections between how well a child fares socially and how successful she is in other areas of life. We know, for instance, that:
* Children, especially good friends, help one another think things through more clearly and competently.
* From one another, they learn lessons about what's right and wrong, about loyalty, and about what happens if you hurt someone's feelings or betray someone's trust.
* The better able children are to form good, sustaining friendships and to be accepted and valued within their peer groups, the more apt they are to do well in school-and, in the long run, in life.
So yes, friends do matter; it is appropriate to pay attention to that aspect of your child's growth and development, and to think about what you can do to promote it. From my talks with parents, however, I know that this worthwhile focus can often lead to troublesome thoughts:
"When the children in her first-grade class are playing, my daughter seems to be kind of an outsider. I wonder if she does something that turns off other kids."
"My daughter is miserable because she's not in the popular clique in her school. I wish I could help her feel better about the whole thing."
"My sweet, funny, bright thirteen-year-old hangs out with a group of boys whom I find cocky and obnoxious. He acts that way, too, when he's with them. And I don't like it!"
These are typical of comments I've heard from parents countless times. Perhaps one of them strikes a responsive chord in you, or maybe you have a different worry. I would guess, in any case, that something about your child's life among other children is causing you grief or at least raising some level of concern:
* Why isn't she being invited on more playdates?
* Why is he always being teased by other kids?
* Why is she so quiet and sullen when she gets home from school?
* What does he do when he's out with his friends? Where do they go?
When it comes to our children's friendships and peer associations, there seems to be a kind of cloud cover of unease hanging over our collective parental mind. I believe there are a number of identifiable, modern-day explanations for this. Here's why mothers and fathers may feel uncomfortable when they consider their children's social lives:
Almost from the cradle on, today's children are called upon to make social connections. Whereas children of an earlier generation rarely got together with peers other than siblings, cousins, or neighborhood kids before formally entering school in kindergarten, many of today's infants are with groups of other infants for eight or more hours a day. Two- and three-year-olds are now meeting their agemates in settings that essentially compel them to get along well with others and even to make difficult decisions about whom they want to be friends with and whom they don't. Furthermore, they will remain in age-segregated groups longer than children have done at any previous point in history, in their schoolrooms and in all the extracurricular venues they go to as soon as school is out.
Learning to live comfortably in the company of peers is a necessary requirement for your child, a critical challenge that begins at a very early age and will continue for many years.
Parents and children don't spend a great deal of time together anymore.
Said one parent, "My mother was always there when my brothers and I came home from school. My dad arrived at six o'clock on the dot every evening. Dinner was at six-thirty on the dot. I wouldn't say that we were a cheery, happy little family all the time. But my folks were always around, we were always around, and that was true right until the time I went off to college." Her own son and daughter, in contrast, each entered day care at the age of eighteen months. Now, as fourth and fifth graders, both children have, according to their mom, "a laundry list of things they do after school and on the weekends. Their father and I feel like chauffeurs. Sometimes I think we're all ships that pass in the night."
It's a familiar story. In a culture in which more women than ever are working, more are remaining in the workforce after having children, and more are single parents-and in which both mothers and fathers are working longer hours than ever-we simply don't see as much of our children. Family members can indeed feel like ships that pass in the night. Mothers and fathers can feel more like chauffeurs than like parents, or at least have an uncomfortable sense that they are on the periphery of their children's day-to-day lives. In a competitive world, parents want their children to keep pace with their peers.
A father whose two young sons were involved in soccer in the fall and Little League in the spring said, "I sometimes wish they had a more laid-back kind of life, more like I had as a kid. But being on teams is good for them. Not only because it's fun and it's exercise, but because it helps them set goals and learn to compete. And they're growing up into a tough, expensive, aggressive world." Besides, he added, "all the kids they know are involved in these activities, so they sort of have to be, too."
Like this dad, many parents perceive that their children are entering a winner-take-all society. They want them to keep up with the children down the block, the children in their school, the unknown children on the other side of the country who are doing things in fourth grade that they (or their parents) hope will get them into a particular college years down the road or prepare them for a particular career. Parents feel the pressure; children feel the pressure.
Parents perceive the social world their children live in as being fraught with difficulties, even dangers, they themselves never had to face when they were in school.
Parents' sense of being out of touch with their kids is not simply a result of spending limited time with them. Said the mother of two preteens: "My kids live in a hugely more complicated world than my friends and I did when we were their age. It's like a foreign territory!" She explained, "I know about raves, club drugs, Internet chat rooms. Some of my daughter's twelve-year-old friends look like eighteen-year-olds. I think it's so easy for these kids to get lured into things they're not ready for, or they can't handle."
Even more alarming are the tragic incidents we have begun to hear about with dismaying regularity on the news. "How do I really know what's going on with my son and his friends?" wondered one parent. "If these seemingly average, middle-class, normally brought up kids can come out of nowhere and even think about trashing a school or shooting someone, it feels like it could happen anywhere."
Children once got into trouble in the course of a school day for running in the hall, talking out of turn, or throwing food in the lunchroom. Today the stakes are higher: Many of our older children must pass through metal detectors before they can even enter their classrooms.
Parents believe that if something is going wrong with their child, they must correct it. Many of the things that used to cause children problems are now fixable. Orthodontists, dermatologists, math and reading tutors, and myriad other specialists are ready to help us turn out the perfect child. A few thousand parenting-advice books have persuaded us that a child's "inner," psychological life can also be fixed.
Of course, it's a positive, loving parental impulse to want to make everything right for a child. But that good wish can weigh heavily when we think it's up to us to solve all of our children's problems. Contributing to that burden is the fact that in recent decades, "the experts" have insisted that when things aren't going right with a child, it's the parents who must carry the blame. Lately-just to add to the confusion and the pressure-some have advanced a contrasting argument: "Parents matter less than you think," a popular book advises us, "and peers matter more!"
No wonder today's mothers and fathers are feeling less than sanguine!
We have taken upon ourselves the admirable task of attending to our children's emotional and psychological well-being, at the very moment that they seem most vulnerable to powerful forces beyond our control.
The good news, I believe, is that social scientists have also been paying attention to all this. In recent years there has been an explosion of research into childhood friendships and relationships. How does a child make friends? What is the nature of a child's life within her peer group? What kind of parental attention seems to hinder or to facilitate her ability to get along well with other children? These are among the issues that have occupied my own career in developmental science for over twenty-five years.
From the start-as a graduate student in psychology at Penn State University, as well as in the early stages of my academic career at the University of Waterloo in Canada-I found myself involved in trying to understand how it is that children become social beings. At what point do they begin to take into account the perspectives or points of view of others, and what prompts them to do so? My initial studies, and those of other researchers, bore out one of the leading theories of the time, the thesis that being with other children, and engaging in play and pretend games with them, seemed to promote a young child's ability to think and act socially. For me, then, the next question was, What happens to children who, for whatever reason, do not fit comfortably into the world of their agemates?
So began what we called the Waterloo Longitudinal Project, a study in which my colleagues and I followed the same group of children from the beginning of kindergarten to the beginning of high school. It was this project that taught us how enormously significant peers are in a child's development.
In particular, our work supported the generally accepted notion that aggressive kids-that is, the children who, whether they were four, seven, or eleven, simply could not get a handle on other people's thoughts and feelings and who lacked empathy and helpfulness-didn't fare very well. More unexpectedly, we were able to show that shy, withdrawn kids were also having a great deal of trouble. Why is it, we wondered next, that some children grow up to feel confident and to act competently in their increasingly broad social worlds, while others don't? This new question led me to investigate two new areas, parenting and biology.
Between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s, my colleagues and I organized several studies to gauge the impact of parenting on how children behave among their peers. As we followed these youngsters up into middle school, we began to discover the connections between the two. From our observations, the next question suggested itself: Why do parents differ so markedly in the ways they think about and develop relationships with their children? Is there something about the individual child that causes a mother or father to react in a certain way? So began my work (now in its twelfth year) with colleagues at the University of Maryland on the biological bases for infant and child social and emotional behaviors-work that has provided further confirmation of the fact that parenting matters.
More recently still, in the ongoing Friendship Study, I've been interested in finding answers about children's friendships and peer groups. Are some friendships good for a child and others less good? What happens to the child who is friendless? Why do some children feel lonely in their school settings, and others perfectly happy? When a child experiences stress, can he or she turn to friends for support? At what age does that begin? Do the kinds of relationships children form with their closest friends mirror the kinds of relationships they have with their parents?
I must add that I have learned a great deal about the importance and influences of peers and parents from my fifteen-year "career" as a hockey coach and my even longer one as a father. Observing kids on a hockey team form friendships and reputations over the course of a season, as they learn how to cooperate and how to compete all at once, has taught me a lot about child development-though nowhere near as much as has being a parent myself, watching my two children grow and engaging them in all manner of activities and experiences.
I've had the absolute pleasure of seeing my daughter and son survive each of the "stages" of childhood and adolescence. I've been privy to their experiences with their close friends. I've lived through Grease and Star Wars, U2 and Nirvana, blue hair (daughter) and black nail polish (son). As is so often the case, my children-both now young adults-are ever so different in many ways. But both are decent, kind, sensitive, highly active, and talented individuals. I'm proud of them-and knowing what I do about developmental science, I'm confident that their parents played a significant role in their development!
All of this is to say that at no previous point in my work (and life) could I have presented a more accurate picture of what goes on with a child as he or she moves through various peer worlds from preschool to high school. Certainly, as director of the Laboratory for the Study of Child and Family Relationships at the University of Maryland, and through professional collaborations on several continents, I have become increasingly aware that children's developmental trajectories are both complex and largely predictable. We now know a great deal more than we ever did before about children's social and emotional lives.
Are peers instrumental in the process of children's growth? Absolutely. Are parents? Again, absolutely. My studies focus, like much of the most exciting other research in the field, on the connections between those two worlds or those two relationship systems, child/parent and child/peer. We are learning that the two feed off each other in subtle, powerful, and intriguing ways.
And so the time seems right for The Friendship Factor.
What I hope to accomplish in this book is, first, to ease parents' minds. I intend to assure you that you can and should be involved in helping your child form good, rewarding friendships with "good" kids, from toddlerhood right through adolescence. Parents wield tremendous influence over their children's social lives, even if much of what the kids themselves do appears to take place in a "foreign territory," and even during the early-teen years when they seem swept away by their friends.
In this book, I'll share with you the findings of the many recent and ongoing studies regarding children's psychological and emotional development as it relates to friendships and peer groups. Based on this research (a good deal of it carried out in my own labs in the United States and Canada), we can paint a portrait of what we call the socially competent child. I'm sure you already have a pretty good idea of what that means.
A socially competent child, after all, is what you want your son or daughter to be-that is, a child who makes good friends; who is generally accepted and well liked by other children; and who can meet the challenges of modern-day childhood head on, without being bowled over or crushed under by them. You want your child to be able to maneuver his or her way successfully, safely, and (at least most of the time) happily through complicated social worlds-worlds that encompass classrooms, lunchrooms, locker rooms, playgrounds, summer camps, friends' homes, and all the other places in which your growing youngster spends so much time before reaching young adulthood.
We have discovered through our work that most children can become socially competent. But each child will get there in his or her own manner. For some, from the earliest ages on, that competence seems to come naturally. These are the youngsters who head cheerfully and confidently off to meet their peers and who apparently have what it takes (or learn what they must learn) to draw others to them in pleasant and positive ways. For many other children, however, social competence does not come effortlessly at all. And when things aren't going well, every child will benefit enormously from parental help, which starts with parental understanding.
That means, first of all, accepting where your child is coming from. Even though I haven't ever met your son or daughter, I can say with some measure of assurance that he or she tends to behave socially in one of several ways-what we'll describe later as essentially moving toward, moving away from, or moving against others. No doubt you are keenly aware of these tendencies; parents know their children well. And yet my work with hundreds of families over the years has taught me that mothers and fathers, even with all the love and good intentions in the world, often resist or fight against what they know: They wish their child were someone different, and are frustrated and upset that he or she is not. They struggle with feelings of disappointment, and then perhaps with feelings of guilt and blame-"What's wrong with me that I get so annoyed and impatient with my kid?" But only by first embracing what is special about your child-what is fundamental or biologically based-can you truly be in a position to offer the appropriate response when he or she runs into difficulties with friends or in peer groups.
The Friendship Factor is all about those appropriate responses. I hope you will come away from reading this book with some concrete ideas-skills, strategies, or techniques-that will work for your child, that will encourage him or her to begin or continue to develop social competence. The fact is that while you cannot solve your child's problems for him or her, there is much you can do to be supportive and helpful. There is much you can learn about when, where, and how to step in if social life is going badly for your son or daughter, or even if things just aren't what they should be.
The themes described below form the core of this book. They are my wish list of what I'd like all parents to know about their children's social lives.
Your child came into the world with a set of genes-which determined, for example, that she'd have brown eyes and curly hair-as well as a group of biologically based characteristics that can affect how she will act around other people. Doubtless you already have a pretty good idea about those aspects of your child that define her personality or temperament; in fact, qualities related to temperament can be measured even in infants. Before a child is walking and talking, and certainly long before she is having playdates and going to birthday parties, we can begin to understand, for instance, whether she is likely to be outgoing and confident around other children or, in contrast, cautious, worried, and wary.
In other words, some of your child's core inclinations in terms of approaching other children have no connection whatsoever to anything you did or didn't do. That's a relief, isn't it? But parents nevertheless can-and should-mediate or moderate, soften or channel, shape or reinforce a child's inclinations in ways that will further his social competence.
In a later chapter, I'll take you through studies that my colleagues and I have conducted that track these biological beginnings through the early years of childhood and, more important, reveal how parents' responses to them can be either helpful or not so helpful. Yes, biology matters. If yours is a biologically inhibited child, you cannot "remake" her into a highly gregarious one. However, with the right guidance, your inhibited child can be happy, have friends, and be liked by her peers.