Research shows that childhood friendships are important indicators of future success and social adjustment. Children’s relationships with peers strongly influence their success in school, and children with fewer friends are more at risk of dropping out of school, becoming depressed and other problems. Parents who support healthy peer relationships help their children develop important skills for life.
By Natalie Walker Whitlock
When 6-year-old Rachel returned to school on a recent Monday morning, her eyes immediately scanned the playground for her friend Abbie. Though they were only separated by a weekend, the girls “Ran right into each other’s arms and hugged,” recalls Rachel’s mother Kathryn Willis of Gilbert. “It was like it was a scene from a movie.”
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Most parents instinctively know that having friends is good for their child. Yet recent research sheds new light on the importance of friends. Experts agree that a positive, caring friendship helps children achieve better in school, have better self-esteem, and reduces the risks for emotional and physical problems. Childhood friendship has proven to be an important indicator of future success in school, at work and in future relationships. It seems friendship is not simply child's play, but a powerful predictor of social adjustment throughout life.
A Skill for Life
According to Dr. Robbie Adler-Tapia, psychologist with the Center for Children's Health & Life Development at the East Valley Family Resource Center, “Childhood friendships serve as a very important training ground for adulthood. They are preparation for the workplace, and for other relationships, including marriage.”
Adler-Tapia, who often works with children from the foster system and Child Protective Services, also says, “Having friends is terribly important. The belief that there is somebody else who cares about you in this world can sustain kids through even the most horrific of circumstances.”
In a report compiled for the U.S. Department of Education’s Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC) titled Having Friends, Making Friends and Keeping Friends, researcher William Hartup states, “Peer relations contribute substantially to both social and cognitive development and to the effectiveness with which we function as adults.” Hartup concludes that the single best childhood predictor of adult social adaptation is not school grades or classroom behavior, but rather, how well a child gets along with other children.
Just as being able to make and keep friends is beneficial to kids, so is the lack of friends detrimental, according to the work of Arizona State University professor of developmental psychology Gary Ladd. For approximately seven years, Ladd has directed the Pathways Project, a long-term study of 400 children followed from kindergarten though junior high school, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health. The project's results so far indicate that a child's relationships with peers greatly influence his or her success in school, perhaps more than other more “obvious” factors, such as intellectual aptitude, economic status or family background. The children who had fewer friends were at a greater risk for a host of troubles, from dropping out of school to juvenile delinquency to mental health problems.
Good Friendships Don't Just Happen
Experts agree that the key is for children to establish high-quality friendships. But, researchers warn, these friendships don't necessarily just happen. Often, a good friendship begins with involved parents.Studies show a positive correlation between parental involvement and successful peer relationships.
Ladd's Pathway's Project found that while some parents took a hands-off approach, other families actively nurtured their children’s social skills even before they began kindergarten. By inviting friends over; talking with children about fairness, sharing and compromise; and intervening and helping children work through problems, parents in these families acted as social skills mentors.
“In these ways, parents were, in fact, teaching social competence – how to make and maintain a friendship with another child,” Ladd says.
While Adler-Tapia acknowledges that accommodating children's friendships may be difficult for parents trying to juggle competing responsibilities, the effort is worth it. “As hard as it is to provide opportunities for children to socialize, it's very important we carve out a little time for friendship,” she says.
Valley psychologist Dr. Lynne Kenney Markan, who runs social skills training groups for children and teens at the Melmed Center in Scottsdale, believes kids should be taught social skills in much the same way they are taught math and reading. Despite the proven importance of friendship, she says, “Nobody teaches us how to make and keep friends.”
According to Markan, while social skills may come readily for some children, others require more parental support and guidance. She advises parents who feel that their child is having trouble making or keeping friends to try to objectively evaluate the cause. Is the child too aggressive or overly shy? Markan points out that sometimes, however, difficulties with peers are due to a child's “good” qualities, such as sensitivity (which may be perceived as a weakness by other children) or academic success, not from a lack of social skills.
Markan suggests parents help children practice better ways of establishing and maintaining friendships from the time they are toddlers. “Most children regard making friends as something that just happens, instead of regarding it as something they can be in charge of and do skillfully,” she says. “Let your child know that friendship skills can be worked on just like academic or athletic skills.” (See Developing Social Skills.)
Just One Friend
Often, parents' feelings about their own past experiences with peers spill over into concern for their children's relationships. Parents may wish their child had more friends or was perceived as “popular” by their peers.
Yet, according to Cynthia Erdley and Douglas Nangle, University of Maine psychologists and co-editors of the book The Role of Friendship in Psychological Adjustment, even one good friend can stave off childhood loneliness and depression, even if the child is not part of the “in” crowd. The experience of having a single friend to confide in can promote feelings of trust and acceptance and bridge the gap between loneliness and belonging.
“Some kids thrive on being part of a big group, while others only need one or two significant friends to be happy,” Adler-Tapia says.
Warning signs that children may lack sufficient friendships include an absence of incoming calls or invitations from peers, being unable to name specific close friends, hanging out with kids who are significantly older or younger, or if your child is upset by his or her lack of friends. Adler-Tapia adds that spending too much time alone – such as watching television, playing video games or spending time on the computer – should be a red flag for parents.
However, “remember, some children gain energy from social situations. Others need to be alone to re-energize,” she points out. “Neither is better than the other.”
Many parents worry about the quality as well as the quantity of their child's friendships. Often, a child's idea of what constitutes a “good” friend isn't the same as his or her parents’. A Glendale mother of two discovered this when her 7-year-old daughter began having difficulties with a playmate.
“When she was in 1st grade, her supposed ‘best friend’ began calling her names and threatening to hurt her,” says Mindy Miller. “(My daughter) wasn't allowed to talk to or even look at other girls in her class. It really crushed her spirit.” Miller tried what many parents would have in her situation. “I told my daughter she didn't need a ‘friend’ like that.”
However, while such a tactic may be well-intentioned, experts advise against telling a child point-blank that his friend would make a better ex-friend. Parental criticism of friends may backfire and inadvertently solidify a friendship that would have otherwise been a passing attraction.
“You can teach your child the skills and competencies to make wise friend choices without hitting them over the head with it,” says Markan. “Try sprinkling it throughout the day, rather than sitting them down and saying, ‘We're going to talk about your friends today.’” Instead of disapproving of a friend directly, Markan suggests taking a less threatening approach by talking about the problem as if it is your own, or a sibling’s.
In Miller's case, it simply wasn't enough to tell her daughter her “friend” wasn't acting very friendly. Her daughter needed some parental coaching to help her through a difficult social situation.
“We did some role playing. I played her friend and let my daughter show me how she would react if I was mean to her,” Miller says. “At first her answers were very weak. Now she’s learning to stick up for herself, to say ‘Stop that’ or ‘I don’t like it when you talk to me like that.’”
Both Adler-Tapia and Markan support role playing as a good way to help children practice tricky social skills, such as meeting new friends or standing up for themselves against bossing or bulling. Adds Markan, “If your child has already practiced coping with a difficult social situation it will be easier to call upon that skill when real life calls for it.”
Actions Speak Louder
Friendship can be one of life’s most rewarding experiences. For children, it’s also necessary for healthy social, emotional and cognitive development. Research shows that children with friends have a greater sense of well-being, better self-esteem and fewer social problems than children without friends. On the other hand, a child without friends is more likely to feel lonely, to be victimized by peers or even to engage in deviant behaviors throughout his lifetime.
With so much riding on your child's friendships – or lack of them – parents are wise to support and encourage healthy peer relationships. “I’ll bend over backwards to help my son get together with a friend I think is good for him,” Adler-Tapia says. “I don't look at it as manipulation, just positive parental involvement.”
As with so many parenting issues, sometimes the best teacher is the example you set in your daily interactions with others. When parents model positive friendship behaviors such as kindness, thoughtfulness, cooperation and problem-solving skills, as well as demonstrate that they enjoy and benefit from their own friendships, children learn first-hand what friendship is all about.
Books for Parents
Children’s Friendships, by Zick Rubin, Harvard University Press, $13.95.
Queen Bees & Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends & Other Realities of Adolescence, by Rosalind Wiseman, Crown Publishing Group, $14.95.
The Role of Friendship in Psychological Adjustment, edited by Cynthia Erdley and Douglas Nangle, Jossey-Bass, $29.
Books for Children
How to Be a Friend: A Guide to Making Friends and Keeping Them, by Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown (author of the Arthur series), Little, Brown Children’s Books, $6.99. For younger children.
The Care and Keeping of Friends, American Girl Library Series, by Sally Seamans, Pleasant Company, $7.95. For adolescents and children in upper elementary grades.
Natalie Walker Whitlock is a Chandler, Arizona-based writer and mother of seven children.