Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Kids, Parents, and Friendships

I made my first friend when I was three years old. The way I did it was this: I approached her and said, "Will you be my friend?" and she said, "Yes." That friendship came to a natural close when I graduated from our Montessori school and went to kindergarten the following year, but I can still remember the swell of pride I felt at having made my first friend.

That was not, of course, the first time I had ever played with another child. My mother had taken me to play with the daughters of her friends, occasions I looked forward to and enjoyed. I had even gone to birthday parties and had these little girls over to the house for my birthday. But clearly in my three-year-old mind, the term "friend" did not apply to these children. A friend was something you made, not something your mom handed you on a silver platter.

When we moved to a new town for grade one, I spent more than five lonely months wandering the playground alone at recess. I had learned enough about social rejection by then that the direct approach I had favoured as a three-year-old no longer seemed like an option. My friendless state continued until I was forcibly adopted by Tracey, a big, bossy girl, tall enough to be mistaken for a ten-year-old. My relief was intense.

I've thought of these anecdotes many times over the years, mostly in terms of what they reveal about my personality. Already at age three I was a shy child; I desperately wanted friends but wasn't confident of my ability to secure them. More accurately, I should say that I wanted a friend - I had no interest in the promiscuous behaviour of my peers: one monogamous friendship was enough for me.

In the three decades since my forlorn six-year-old self wandered the playground alone, I have recalled these stories often, but one thought that has never crossed my mind is, "Wow, my parents really dropped the ball on that one."

In yesterday's post at Apathy Lounge, the blogger, a substitute teacher, described the plight of Casey, a new boy in town who's having a hard time adjusting to second grade. His struggles are not helped by his negligent parents who, among other lapses in parental attention, have failed to get to know other parents or arrange playdates so that Casey could start fitting into his new community.

Baffled might be the best word to describe my reaction to this assumption that childhood social success is contingent upon parental involvement. (Some of the comments on my "Playdate Paranoia" post made the same connection and provoked a similar response.) In my recollection, the world of childhood friendship was a kids-only environment, a jungle impenetrable to well-meaning parents whose attempts to interfere couldn't do much good and might do some harm. At best parents might provide a listening ear and some sage advice, but none of the schoolyard friendships I knew of as a child had been fostered (much less created) by parental plotting and scheming. There were, to be sure, kids in my class whose mothers were close friends, but these children regarded one another with a kind of distant wariness. Whatever went on at home, everyone understood that the politics of the primary-school environment were ours to craft for ourselves.

In retrospect, though, I wonder how many of our peer assessments reflected the parents' traits more than the kids'. I can remember Belinda, for instance, who always arrived at school five minutes late, her hair looking like a bird's nest as her frazzled mother hurriedly bundled her and her brother to their classrooms. Belinda occupied a position somewhere on the periphery of social acceptance, but was that because of her chronic lateness and dishevelled appearance, or because she invariably landed in the lowest math and reading groups?

My own mother sent me off to school nicely dressed in turtlenecks and culottes - but whatever she managed to achieve in that direction must have been undermined by my habit of wiping my nose on my sleeve. Well into the third grade I came home from school each winter afternoon with my nice, clean shirts a snot-encrusted mess. It stands to reason that prompt haircuts, well-fitting clothes, and nicely trimmed fingernails would promote popularity, but can these measures really stand a chance in that primary-school world where children will still accost their classmates at recess, demanding a bite of their Oreo cookies? (Or maybe that was just me.)

How much power do you think parents have over their children's social acceptance? To what extent do you make parenting decisions - about what shows your children watch, what clothes they wear and what snacks they take to school - based on the desire to foster your child's friendships and popularity?


Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

I don't think at all about fostering my child's popularity. Only God knows why a certain child is considered popular; I could never decipher that code!

I do try to be aware of my ability to enable friendships. For example, my son often talks about a boy in his class. I let him know that we could invite that boy to our house; I said I could call the boy's mom to set up a playdate. But my son never said he wanted me to, so I haven't.

Beck said...

Oooh, booking playdates with potential friends is IMPORTANT these days - kids can't roam around on their own anymore, and if their house is off-limits to other kids, if they vanish on the weekends and after school, they're not likely to have any real school friends - and at-home visits give shyer kids a change to shine, one on one. So poor little Casey's parents ARE dropping a big ball. They could talk to his teacher and ask which child in his class seems like a good match, and then phone the other parents and see if the boys could get together. I'm not saying that I would hover over the visit, the way you do when 2 11 months old are playing, but still.

So if my kids ask if they can have a friend over, I sigh and say yes. In The Girl's case, she's old enough to make the phone calls herself, but for The Boy, I still phone and chat with other moms. And The Baby gets many, many playdates, but has already made her own ferociously prized "best" friend.

ewe are here said...

I actually don't want my kids to be 'popular', although I want them to be well liked and have good friends. I think I tend to equate 'popularity' with peer pressure to do stupid things to keep it.

I do hope they didn't struggle to make and keep friends like I did when I was young though... never my strong suit.

Bea said...

Beck - That was the other piece of the puzzle I forgot to work into the post: in my day, we arranged our own playdates, even in grade one: we just went home from school with the child of our choice, called our mothers when we got there, and then walked home at 5 o'clock. I guess they don't do that anymore, though, do they?

Swistle said...

I agree with you about the bafflement. And as long as parents help when necessary to handle the logistics of their children's friendships (giving rides, etc.), I don't think the parents need to make the friends FOR them. My parents arranged me some "playdates" in elementary school (3rd/4th grade) at a teacher's recommendation, and everyone was SO SURPRISED when those forced friendships didn't work out.

I'm also sick of teachers complaining that parents "drop the ball" about things---often things that of course the parents don't know about, since the things happen at school and the teachers don't tell the parents about it.

Jolyn said...

Oh my goodness, none. We have moved many times, three times since my 13yo started school. He is very content with one or two friends, but it never works for me to try to create these friendships. He would gravitate toward a certain child or two at school, I tried to pay attention and then encouraged a friendship to be fostered by trying to befriend the mom (when he was younger) and by encouraging him to invite the other child over and at least introducing myself to his parent(s)(now).

Oh, and in this Ohio suburbia, that same 13yo does sometimes go home with his one friend who lives within bike riding distance, and vice versa.

Mary-LUE said...

I think you can facilitate, with playdates at appropriate ages, etc. However, I think you have to be careful about interfering at a certain age.

I don't think there is much a parent can do to help a child socialize while they are at school (other than out of school playdates). I guess I am thinking of the challenges my son faced beginning around 7 years old in our neighborhood that carried on into junior high. He was very sad, mad and lonely and the boys who had been his friends from 4 to 7 suddenly started teasing, ignoring, taunting him.

Paul and I had to be careful because confronting the parents may have backfired on us. We chose not to confront, to keep a very close and careful eye (to make sure no physical bullying was happening), and to encourage friendships at school and church. Now, in high school, guess who some of his closest friends are? The torturers.

Marley had her own issues at school, but because I was in her classroom all the time, I knew about them. I was traumatized and she was sometimes upset, but again, we kept a careful eye, arranged playdates when possible, blah, blah, blah. We were in an unusual situation because she is in a K-3 multiage class. She's moved up with the same kids every year. She's doing quite well now.

(Sorry for rattling on... I didn't even get to the relationships with our friends' kids!)

Mary-LUE said...

I started talking about school and shifted to the neighborhood. Sorry. I think the principles are the same.

Emmie (Better Make It A Double) said...

We just had our first preschool conferences for our boys, and I was surprised when the teacher suggested a couple of "good matches" for each boy. I know she meant well, but frankly, I'm not really going there when my kids don't even initiate this stuff yet. They go to preschool, church and Sunday School, run around with cousins --it's enough. Have you ever read the book Hold On To Your Kids? IMO, it makes a persuasive case for delaying peer influence when possible. I don't think it's a parent's job to facilitate a kids' social life, unless maybe the kid has some special needs that warrant some extra assistance. I do think it's the parents' job to bring kids up within an interdependent community to some extent, though.

Mimi said...

Hm. Bea, I was more like you -- I wanted one friend, and I figured it was my job to find that friend. That said, there were some 'natural' social groups in my class. For example, the high school teachers' kids all seemed to hang out together. And the kids from the expensive part of town rode the same bus togehter and were a clique. So it was less about parental intent than ... um, socioeconomic status?

Beck, OMG, do I have to do this? Gah.

Merle said...

I think the relationships we have with our kids set the stage for the relationships they will have with others. The mother who couldn't get herself together to help her daughter be neat and tidy was doing her a disservice, not just in this one instance, but most likely in several similar ways. The parents who choose to send their children in clothes that are too small or outdated and old fashioned may do so because their priorites are askew -- the clothes are just one example. (The cavet here is that the family may have enough money to buy clothes. Parents that do not obviously would not fall in this category.) Parents who "drop the ball" are easy to spot because their kids have diffculty fitting in. While the signs are easy to spot superficially, like the wrong clothes or messy hair, the problems go much deeper.
(But then you add special needs to the mix and things get even more complicated.)
Parents can facillitate friendships. They can do it by being friends with their kids. That means buying clothes they like, remembering show and tell days, inviting their best friend from school over, ensuring their class assignments get finished and helping them do them, finding out what they like, spending time with them and showing them that they are important.
Kids who make friends are kids who have healthy self esteem. Showing our kids how much we love them and what is lovable about them helps them learn to love themselves.
When we are patient, they learn patience. When we are compassionate, they learn compassion. When we are thier friend, they learn to be friends.

kayla said...

great blog site!

Carrien said...

BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA-I'm not laughing at you. But the question for some reason is really amusing to me. I don't think I have ever, even once considered my children's peer relationships in the choices I make about them. I honestly don't care.

I home school. Partially because I don't want my children to learn how to behave from a bunch of other kids their own ages. I want them to learn from adults and people of good character how to be people of good character themselves. I don't give a damn whether or not that makes them popular. I don't think it matters. As long as they are friends with each other I'm happy.

But then, I never cared much if I was popular either. And i had a lot of true, loyal friends. That's the way I preferred it. hate the games.

That said, my kids have a lot of friends from the neighborhood, and our house is where all the kids congregate after school. I encourage that. though, again, not out of any concern for their social life. I just don't want them playing at someone else's house. I don't trust that most of the homes around here are safe places for my children to be. And that's why I let the kids come to my house also, because I care about them, and their homes aren't very safe or stable places for them to be either.

If they have family they have enough to my way of thinking. Friends are for when they are much older. playmates are nice to have, but not essential, they have each other.

I remember the awkwardness of spending time with the children of my parents' friends. We would talk when we were stuck at each others houses while our parents visited but we had so little in common that we rarely even acknowledged each other at school.

planetnomad said...

The beginning of your post took me back inexorably to Grade 4, when I cornered a girl named Caroline out by the coats one day and asked her to be my friend. (She said YES!!!!) We moved away 2 years later and I have had no contact with her since.
Because we have moved so often, I do try to help my kids find friends, but not in the way you describe. Mostly I listen for names, and then I ask if they'd like to invite the other child over. Or, if I'm in the situation where I'm meeting the other mother (i.e. church), then I might arrange it. I don't view this as my responsibility per se, more as me doing whatever I can to help them settle in.
Oh and oddly enough, their best friends are the kids of my best friend. Isn't that weird? I did not think that would happen, but I am happy about it. I am interested to see what will happen with these friendships however.

Bea said...

Merle - Another bit I forgot to add is that I remember having a sleepover once at Belinda's house (we weren't really friends, but it was one of those random "let's have a sleepover" things) and it was a really happy, affectionate household. A bit messy, a bit disorganized, but clearly a loving family.

Everybody - I probably tilted the question in the wrong direction when I used the word "popularity" because what I'm talking about is not so much social supremacy as avoiding the worst pitfalls of bullying and ostracism. The degree of social integration Carrien describes - having friends but not being in the "popular" group is all I'm really aiming for here. (Do they even have popular groups in the primary grades? What I recall is that there were a few outsiders, and everybody else just made friends. The issue here is what role can/should parents play to make sure their kids aren't one of the outsiders?)

Anonymous said...

There is such a degree of social isolation these days - kids use the computer, phone and any other electronic device to communicate. They are put on the bus to school and back, rushed to after school activities, and they don't just hang out after school to play like they did when I was young.

The world is very, very different than when we were kids and if parents don't facilitate (not control or manipulate) a face-to-face friendship, it just won't happen. Making friends at school is becoming a lost art to many of these kids. Many schools don't even have recess anymore, meaning the kids never get any time to try and build a more meaningful relationship.

I wouldn't want to criticize any parent's behaviour but there does need to be recognition that if a parent doesn't encourage outside friendships these days, through the actual "work" of arranging playdates deeper friendships won't happen.

I don't understand at all those parents who are writing that friendships at a young age are unimportant. Kids need other kids to play with and to learn proper social skills with other kids -not just family members. Its great to be friends with your family members but it is a completely different relationship - think of your relationship with your own sibling vs. your best friend. There is a real sense of pride in being able to find, keep and foster a true friendship.

Carrien - your love for your children is evident in your post - so is your distrust of the outside world. If your children are learning anything through their homeschooling, it would seem to me that it is "we are only safe at home and the rest of the world is scary". Surely your kids must have one or two friends whose houses they could safely visit. I know my house is safe when I host playdates - even those with kids who are homeschooled.

Susanne said...

I didn't know you could foster friendships in others. Like you say, I remember a lot of children of my parent's friends whom I didn't like at all though we spent a lot of time together. (The dislike was mutual.)

I'm still baffled that my son seems to be very popular in kindergarten. That every time I enter the grounds there is a mother waiting for me saying, "My son/daughter really wants to play with your son, can we make a date?" It's nice that he goes along with everybody so I don't have to take him aside asking if he wants to or not.

On the other hand he rarely asks to have other children over but I think that's mostly because he isn't used to it that much, and also he often is quite relieved to have a bit of time alone after more than seven hours in kindergarten. If he tells me that he wants somebody to come over I phone and try to arrange things.

What I do to help his popularity is to see that his clothes are marginally cool, and his haircut. But the children at that age aren't really aware of these things yet.

When I was a child there weren't any playdates until I was in third grade or so. We either played with neighborhood children (ring doorbell ask if so-and-so wants to play), or we had to go along to dates that our mothers set up for themselves.

apathy lounge said...

Actually, my concern was not with Casey's "popularity". Not at all. My concern was the fact that he told me that he felt he didn't have any friends. That no one would play with him on the playground. The time away from recess that he lost was due to not having his daily planner signed which, twice, was because his parents didn't sign it. Casey's anxiety was partly due to his fear that having less time on the playground was impacting his ability to make friends. I did criticize what I thought to be their lax attitude in "getting with the program". This is a school where even working parents use their lunch hour to bring a Happy Meal or share a sack lunch at a group of tables just for that purpose. Or they use that time to volunteer in some small way. This does not happen with him. It is Casey's problem if he lacks the confidence to walk up to someone and make a friend, but as I said in the post...he's also the youngest kid in the class. He's aware of this fact and he feels he's at a disadvantage due to his physical size (small). He struggles academically and all correspondance I've gotten from his parents seems only to apologize for their role in losing his work or whatever. Nothing pre-emptive. Nothing that says, "hey...what can we do to help?". I don't know if Casey will be "popular" or even if he wants to be. But making a friend (and feeling as though you don't know how to go about it) is a tough gig for a little kid. If he's expressing his upset to me? A substitute? I can't imagine that his parents don't hear something similar. Maybe the don't, but if they do and they don't respond? Well, shame on them. In the comments we also addressed the fact that they started him in school at a very young age and he's not really caught up yet. Again, their choice...not his...but he's suffering from the consequences of their choice.

Magpie said...

Hmm - you ask two questions in that there last paragraph. At this point, I don't make any choices as to clothes or food or toys or TV that are because I am trying to channel her relationships. I have steered her towards kids whose parents I like - inviting them over for playdates. And I suppose that is a little selfish of me, but I'd rather spend a couple of hours hanging out with a parent I like instead of one I don't like. I don't think that makes me a bad parent, or even a pushy one.

Bon said...

i remember elementary school much as you do...but looking back, i realize my mother did try behind the scenes to ensure that i at least had the opportunity to make friends. it occurs to me that she had to work a bit to overcome the stigma of being a single parent in a small town in the 70s, and living in the 'wrong' neighbourhood...some of the friendships i made felt natural but were definitely parent-facilitated, in hindsight. hmmm.

i'm not doing much for O, but he's two.

painted maypole said...

you know, I try to create an environment to hang out with other kids, but I think that when she was younger the skills I taught her about sharing, etc (and still have to work on today - like letting your guest go first) help the most.

Stimey said...

I think when I do things that I feel will help my kids fit in, it is because I have vivid memories of NOT fitting in--of having my mom buy the denim skirt, but the WRONG denim skirt--and not wanting my kids to feel the same way.

I do try to teach them not to do things just to fit in, and I'm not obsessive about trying to make them popular. I just want to help make them socially acceptable. They can take it from there. (Of course, things are a little different with my autistic guy.)

I don't consider not scheduling playdates to be delinquent or negligent, but I do think if a couple kids want to get together, a playdate can help move a friendship along.

Sue said...

I'm just shocked that you can remember things from when you were THREE. Holy genius.

DaniGirl said...

Oh such interesting timing you have - as always. Tristan's friends at school are into Bakugon, something I don't really understand or like, but I really really want to buy him the pieces for him to play along simply because I want him to fit in and be accepted. Kind of sad, I know. He's saving his allowance to buy his own, which seems like a reasonable compromise.

Interesting question about what role parents have to play in their children's acceptance. I wonder if my parents could have done anything different to avert my own wretched time in elementary school?

Becky said...

Hey Bea,

Kai's school makes it very easy for us to organize playdates - every year they put out a full school collection of class lists with a massive student directory, including parent's names, e-mail addresses, street addresses and phone numbers, so that we can contact classmates and arrange playdates.

At first, I had to coerce Kai into telling me who he played with at school. He was as reluctant to tell me about his friends as he was about opening up about anything that went on at school. When I explained that "how else would I know to organize playdates for him?", he immediately confessed four names. I have full names in the class lists, and I can look them up in the directory.

Now he is a social butterfly, constantly asking me to organize dates for him...

Sus said...

I am with you - I feel as if no matter how many play dates I arrange (which I do mainly to stay in touch with other adults myself), Frannie (who is 3) goes her own way, tends to be a bit of a loner except with known quantities like cousins and lifelong friends, and (as I mentioned in a previous comment) often clings to me inexplicably in social settings. It's like how some kids are sleepers and some aren't. It's who she is, and all I can do is make sure she is okay with who she is, and that she knows I am too.