How can we help our children choose the right friends? Between the ages of 5 and 12, making friends is one of the most important missions of middle childhood - a social skill that will endure throughout their lives. Developmentally, school-age children are ready to form more complex relationships. They become increasingly able to communicate both their feelings and their ideas, and they can better understand concepts of time- - past, present, and future. At this age they are no longer so bound to the family or so concerned mostly about themselves but begin relying on peers for companionship, spending more time with friends than they did during the preschool years. Day by day they share with one another the pleasures and frustrations of childhood.
Choosing friends A number of factors can come into play as your youngsters selects their friends. If they feel well about themselves, and if they have been loved and respected within the family, they are more likely to make good choices of friends. If you and your spouse relate to each other well, and if your children have caring and supportive relationships with brothers and sisters, they will have seen and experienced positive examples of how people can relate, and they will carry these impressions over into their own friendships - including the friends they choose. On the other hand, if those family experiences have not been supportive and confidence-boosting, they are more likely to seek out peers who have similar types of troubles. Take some time to help your children understand why they choose the friends they do. This is an opportunity to discuss their values, feelings, and behaviors.
Healthy friendships A healthy friendship is one in which both children are on an equal footing. Neither child should dominate the other to make all the decisions on what activities to pursue. They should share and make an effort to please each other. They should also be capable of problem-solving on their own: If one boy wants to play with a particular toy that belongs to his buddy, they will probably work out a time schedule so that each can have a turn. Or they might devise alternative activities that they can do together.
Language skills are essential for building and solidifying a good friendship. During middle childhood, friends learn to communicate clearly with one another, sharing secrets, stories, feelings, and jokes. Children with language or speech problems often have difficulty making friends, frequently using inappropriate words and missing out on subtle messages and cues - verbal as well as nonverbal - from their peers.
A "best" friend In middle childhood some youngsters concentrate their social activity on a single best friend. In these relationships children usually match themselves with someone with whom they feel completely compatible, someone who is capable of meeting their needs for companionship, approval, and security.
These can be wonderful friendships, the kind that seem as though they will last a lifetime - sometimes they actually do. Even though parents often worry that exclusive friendships can be confining and stifling, and that their child has too much invested in this single relationship, most experts disagree. Sharing experiences, thoughts, and feelings with one special pal can often be more satisfying than spending time with a large group, as long as these two friends are having a positive influence on each other and are not excluding themselves from a broad range of experiences.
Negative peer influences Dealing with negative peer influences is a challenge, but there are solutions. Some parents may demand that their own youngster stop spending time with this "bad influence," but this may not be the best strategy. In most cases a better strategy is to reinforce positive friendships with other children whose behavior and values meet with your approval. Encourage your youngster to invite these children over to your house to play. Arrange activities that are somewhat structured, mutually enjoyable, and time-limited, such as bowling, bicycling, or watching a sporting event.
At the same time, do not hesitate to express your displeasure over the less desirable playmates. Speak calmly and rationally when you explain why you would prefer that your children not spend time with them. Let them know the consequences if they end up adopting the unacceptable behavior that you have seen in these other children, while still not absolutely forbidding your children to play with them. This approach will teach your youngsters to think more logically and assume responsibility for their own actions, and show that you trust their growing capacity to make the right decisions.
With thanks to the American Academy of Pediatrics