Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Lost Art of Friendship

For kids to bond, they need time together doing an engaging activity.  For toddlers and pre-school children, we arranged  times for friends to meet with our children, either by joining “play groups” where parents and their children meet weekly at parks or other child-friendly locations, or by inviting children over to our house for “play dates.” As our children entered school, there were many more opportunities to meet with friends in addition to play dates, including parties, organized sports, and clubs.  The key was to make sure that our children were spending time with their friends in engaging and positive activities. 
After we’d planned a meeting for our kid’s friends, we’d start planning engaging activities for them.  Engaging activities are activities that interest and engage the children, while allowing them an opportunity to interact with each other.  To set up the best environment to attract friends, we wanted to create play times with our child unique from their friend’s other play experiences.  While we didn’t need to have all of the latest and greatest toys and resources, we did try to purchase one or two unique and age appropriate activities that kids might not have at their own home. For instance, we were the house that had swings and a slide, or the toy with all the fascinating parts and little people, or the house with the finger paints and other art supplies.  When we didn’t have the resources to purchase unique toys, we provided novelty by hosting creative activities.   We took the kids to the park to teach them outdoor games, hosted dress-up parties (nail polish is a big draw) and allowed the entire family room to be turned into a giant blanket fort.  For a while, we were the only household that allowed rubber band gun fights, and we couldn’t keep the boys away.  They key is to provide an engaging activity that will consistently draw your kid’s friends to them.
Not all engaging activities are pure “fun” or “play.”   Our kids formed stronger bonds over activities with a purpose than they did with entertainment activities.  Some of our kid’s strongest bonds of friendship have been formed while helping us with chores and projects around our house, or with community service like landscaping our high school, building houses for the homeless, or serving at our local church.  It’s not unusual for our children to tell their friends that they have to spend 2 hours on a Saturday landscaping before they can play, and have the friend offer to come over early to dig in the yard or haul wheelbarrows.  Other parents are amazed that their children are eager to join us in “work,” but we find that children get deep gratification from activities that have a purpose, or that teach them a new skill.  When we take a group of teenagers to Mexico each year to build houses for the homeless, we work them all day like adults, but then they tell us things like, “this is the hardest I’ve ever worked, and the most tired I’ve ever been, but it’s also the most fun I’ve ever had.  I’d rather do this than take a vacation at an amusement park.”  In that week, those teenagers form permanent and inexplicable bonds with our children that go much deeper than the normal disruptive forces of teenage life.
For friendships to grow, friends need to know they are physically and emotionally safe, and that they are valued and cherished.  Physical safety means that toddlers and pre-school children don’t bite, grade school children don’t hit, and teenagers, especially girls, never feel physically threatened in our home. Children feel emotionally safe in our house because toddlers don’t scream, school children don’t call each other names, middle school children aren’t cruel to each other, and teenagers aren’t duplicitous.  Since we value physical and emotional safety for both our children and their friends, we intentionally trained each of these negative behaviors out of our children, through modeling, instruction, and discipline.  We’ve even caught them being champions of physical and emotional safety (“You shouldn’t call her that mean name.”).
Because we value people, we trained our children to value and cherish their friends and acquaintances.  We’ve all met the socially inept child that struggles to make friends, but what was it about that child that kept them from forming friendships?  It’s often that they don’t value other children with their time, respect, conversations, and resources.  We’ve noticed that children who love others are generous: they listen to their friends instead of dominating the conversation and always talking about themselves.  They share their toys and games, and concede their opinions and desires to their friends; they don’t insist on doing their favorite activity every time they play.  This is not to say that generous children are pushovers or doormats, because our children have very strong opinions and personal presence; but we’ve trained them to consider their friend’s preferences and desires when choosing their activities.  When we’d invited an artistic child over to play, our kids didn’t expect an athletic experience, so they’d offer up a couple of their favorite artistic activities, like drawing or making crafts.  With their more athletic friends, they’d suggest riding scooters or playing ball.
Friendly children often have strong personalities, which attract other children, but they are also polite and kind to the children who gather around them.  As we train our children to be loving and kind, which is a difficult and ongoing endeavor, we can’t just instruct them at home alone in a vacuum.  When they play with friends, we monitor their activities, correcting and directing them to be safe, kind, and generous.  Especially when they were very young, it was tempting to drop them into a group of children and run to another room so we could take a break with other parents. Instead, we found that if we wanted to train our children to be good friends, we had to be actively involved with them while they played.  If they were being selfish with toys, or reacting to conflict physically, or being mean and rude, we had to be there to correct them or even discipline them, taking an active role in their social development.