Last week, I heard Michael Thompson Ph.D., author of the New York Times best seller “Raising Cain: Protecting The Emotional Life of Boys,” speak about the development of friendships among children and the powerful impact that social interactions have on our children's growth. Michael Thompson is the author of several other notable books and a highly sought out speaker.
In summary, Dr. Thompson makes the point that more than any other influence on our children’s lives outside of the home is that of their social interactions. He has stationed himself outside of schools in numerous countries during the morning rush and without fail he always witnesses the same dynamic.
When a child gets off of the school bus, out of a parent’s car or rounds the corner headed into school their gaze is fixed in search of another pair of friendly eyes. They want to make that connection with a friend or even just a peer. It is a way to affirm that they are okay and are accepted. There are of course a small percentage of kids who enter school with their head down and typically make their first contact with an adult. They may go through their entire day having little or no real interaction with another child. These are the kids we worry about.
In his discussion of bullying he makes it clear that bullying is no more prevalent today than it was in the past, it has simply garnered increasingly more attention. While he agrees that severe forms of bullying need to be addressed head on, he is concerned that the word has become overused.
I tend to agree. There is so much focus on addressing the bully’s behavior that we sometimes overlook the fact that the best antidote to a bully is often a friend for the bullied. When a kid who feels put down or cornered by another kid, or group of kids, has a friend or pack of his own to turn to he is more likely to not only survive the experience but also come out stronger in the end. Thompson says that the most powerful forces, which regulate aggression in children, are their peers and the most curative measure of painful interactions with peers is the kindness or solidarity shown by a friend.
In his discussion about what kids learn from their peers he mentions things such as assessing what is fair, how to tell a joke and how to interact with the opposite sex. He laments the loss of neighborhood play and reports this as one of the notable changes in American culture in the last several decades.
In the past, kids would engage in unstructured, unsupervised neighborhood play where they learned to interact with each other based on the unwritten rules of the street. Over time kids became equipped with a toolbox of skills about how to deal with the bully, the jock, and the shy kid. They learned from one another. It was by no means a perfect system but one that allowed for more personal growth than the current deluge of structured and supervised activities and adult driven team sports.
Much of what Dr. Thompson speaks about are the things that most of us intuitively know and those truths that stand the test of time such as, how important it is to be your child’s parent and not their friend, that kids are incredibly resilient and, with very few tragic exceptions, most kids will survive the social heartbreaks of childhood and prevail.
The best way we can support our children through this often socially challenging period (which he defines as being from elementary through middle-school) is to help them learn the skills they need to make friends. This is particularly important if we see that they are not able to do so on their own. This may warrant talking to a school counselor or your child’s teacher and, in cases where kids seem isolated or unable to connect to their peers, finding them an appropriate therapist or social skills group.
Dr. Thompson lectures at schools all over the world to parents, educators and students and if he happens to be in your town, and you have an opportunity to hear him speak, I highly recommend you do so.
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